February 15, 2021

WAITE | “Malcolm & Marie,” during Black History Month!?

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Last week, as a little early Valentine’s day celebration for myself (because who loves me more than me? Evidently no one), I decided to watch the movie “Malcolm & Marie.” Because, come on –– what is a better way to spend a day in February than to simultaneously celebrate the two things this month is revered for: Black people and love. 

Armed with only the information provided by it’s short and enigmatic trailer, I lounged across the 5 pillows on my bed and began the black and white film about Black love. For the most part, I was enjoying myself. The movie’s cinematography is beautiful, the acting is enjoyable, and most of the script, though at a few points tiresome, is engaging. About 50 minutes in, however, I had to hit pause.

The movie focuses on Malcolm, a filmmaker, who in response to a critic’s review of his latest film, begins a lengthy tirade about the tendency for white people to turn all Black art into something “political.” Malcolm shouts about Blackness and identity and the incredibly frustrating fact that the film industry is “white as f—.” He belabors over the fact that “the white girl,” (as Malcolm and Marie continue to call the unseen film critic throughout the movie), could not possibly understand the meaning of Malcolm’s film. The implied reason being that she is white. 

It was at this part of the film that I swiped out of the Netflix app on my phone and looked up the writer of “Malcolm & Marie.” Up until that moment, the idea that a white man would write a script about Black love didn’t even cross my mind. After watching that scene, however, I was sure that whoever wrote the script was not Black. But, this is not because Malcolm’s monologue about identity was problematic or offensive. Actually, being Black myself, I resonated with a lot of what he said. However, the presentation of Malcolm’s contentions on Black identity and politics felt like a clumsy regurgitation of the many infographics that graced our social media screens at the height of BLM demonstrations last summer. And once I discovered that the writer/director, Sam Levinson, was white, Malcolm’s monologue (and subsequently much of the rest of the film) became not just clumsy, but also painfully ironic and hypocritical.

Here is the thing: while there have surely been an upsetting number of times in which Black characters have been depicted in extremely problematic and harmful ways under the pen of a white writer, I do not feel that is what happened here. As a matter of fact, I do not inherently find a problem with a white or non-Black person writing a Black character. I know that white writers and directors have and will continue to write and direct films with Black characters. Sure, I’d prefer for Black stories to be told by Black people, and to share Malcolm’s sentiment, I’d also prefer if  “every f—ing system [wasn’t] white as f—,” but that’s not the hill I feel like dying on at the moment. All I want to do today is talk about irony.

The irony of Levinson, a white filmmaker, having a Black character shout in frustration that he has “been waiting [his] whole life, askin’, ‘where the f— are all the Black filmmakers?’” 

The irony of Marie mocking the film critics review with jest, saying, “and if you can’t tell by the rhythm of my white girl words, you are in for a Black film,” is baffling, seeing as the rhythm of Sam Levinson’s white boy words are currently speaking through Marie’s disparagement of the film critic.

The irony of Malcolm at one point voicing his distrust of the film critic’s white perspective, saying he does not enjoy the political films that “the white woman from the LA times calls political,” is once again ridiculous, given what we know off screen.

What is most ironic in a film that explores the value and importance of authenticity, is that the writer, Levinson, stated in an interview that even though the film is about Black love and identity, no, he did not have any worries about himself being a white filmmaker and expressing the discussions about race raised in the film. Because, though his name is the only one credited as Malcolm & Marie’s “writer”, Levinson maintains that he “trusts the collaborative nature of filmmaking”. 

Film critic, Justin Chang, illuminates this issue perfectly, writing that, “Maybe after listening to Malcolm’s lengthy rant about how dumb it is to interpret art through a political lens, you’ll be too exhausted to question the wisdom of a white filmmaker using a Black character to advance that opinion”.

After watching the film, I had a conversation with Carley Robinson ’20 and Maryam Zafar ’22, Sun editor-in-chief –– both of whom have worked with IDP as facilitators here on campus. We talked about the authenticity of one’s own experiences and what it means to be represented on the screen and behind the camera. Robinson shared that though she liked the movie she ultimately felt that “it is from an observer’s perspective”. I agree. 

A white filmmaker creating a film that intimately discusses Blackness, and explicitly articulates the unreliable and inaccurate perspective a white person has on Black art, felt like a slap in the face. Not because I think Levinson was trying to make a personal affront on the Black community for asking to be represented in all aspects of all industries — after all, both Zendaya and John David Washington are producers of the film — but, because it impressively pointed out how futile such a request is.

I think that it is important to note the fact that this film was swiftly conceived and created during not just the current COVID-19 pandemic, but also last summer, when American — and international — streets erupted in protests and demonstrations calling for people to respect, protect, and care about Black lives. This certainly informed much of the film’s script.

I wonder if people now feel justified in acknowledging the complicated dynamic between white and Black identities without actively doing anything to mitigate those complications. For example, when having an idea to write a film about Black love and identity, at least have the foresight and respect to co-write it with a Black filmmaker.

Sidney Malia Waite is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at swaite@cornellsun.com. Waite, What? runs every other Tuesday this semester.