Malcolm & Marie: The Muse’s Tragedy

By Daniela Espinosa

On February 5th, Netflix released the highly anticipated Malcolm and Marie, and was met with mixed reviews and plenty of criticism. From Emmy award-winning Euphoria actress Zendaya’s noticeable age gap against her counterpart, John David Washington, to the questionable remarks on race written by white writer and director Sam Levinson, Malcolm and Marie definitely had social media active.

One of the frequent comments about the movie, shot completely in black and white, was how exhausting it was to watch. Viewers become voyeurs of an ongoing toxic fight between Malcolm, a filmmaker high off the debut of his new film, and Marie—the inspiration behind said film. The audience soon finds out that Marie did not get her props, or even a simple thank you, for the enormous contributions she made towards her partner’s work.

Malcolm isn’t shy when it comes to arguing with Marie; while drunkenly eating a bowl of mac and cheese she lovingly made him, he berates her. He spews at her all the ways she’s failed him as a partner, and even goes as far as to point out that the main character in his movie was based on an amalgamation of ex-girlfriends and not solely Marie.

Malcolm is a narcissist, verbally and emotionally abusing Marie when she rightfully calls him out for failing to show some gratitude. It’s not a stretch to say the movie feels like a long therapy session you didn’t ask to sit in, but are unfortunately subjected to endure.

Marie, tired of Malcolm’s hurtful and hateful comments, drops the bomb that she essentially is the reason why his film is a success. His “authentic” take on the journey of a woman suffering from drug addiction is actually Marie’s story. As the night goes on and the fight takes several turns, we see that Marie was never really given the opportunity to tell her story the way she wanted to. Malcolm took on the role himself—writing the script, directing the film, even casting someone else to portray the character, even though Marie herself is an actress. And when she vocalizes her anger and sadness about losing the right to tell her own story or to really just be recognized for her efforts in helping to craft the film, Malcolm twists it into a whole different argument: that she craves control because she has difficulty accepting someone can love her the way he does.

It’s interesting that in several parts of the movie Marie brings up that she could easily have filmed her own life story, and then Malcolm wouldn’t have had anything because he’s not an authentic creator. The sad thing is that her truth—her story—is only deemed art when the trauma is shared through Malcolm’s perspective. When she seems to take control of the narrative Malcolm shoots her back down to remind her of her purpose: to be his muse. She’s only there to inspire and cheer him on; her trauma and past are only useful when digestible through his lens.

There’s an interesting line that comes up towards the end, where Malcolm proudly yells out after reading the first review on his film, “Cinema doesn’t need to have a message; it needs to have a heart.”

What does it say, then, about the heart and intent behind cinema—and other forms of art—if it simply does not create safe spaces for women? That our own narratives and stories and experiences are up for anyone else to take and twist, but that we can’t hold the power to share them how we want and rightfully ask for credit when credit is due?

It’s also an interesting take when you consider that a white man wrote and directed this film, centered on being an honest look at the relationship between a Black woman and man. How can the experiences of a Black couple be written authentically by a white person? How can Levinson properly showcase the experience that is a Black woman’s work and life story being overshadowed by her partner?

Malcolm boldly states at one point that Marie is “not the first broken girl” he’s “known, f*cked, or dated.” To him, each woman in his life has served the same purpose, and one can only wonder how much he took from the broken women that came before Marie. I wonder, too, if we are finally done with allowing these art forms to take and take from muses—women, Black creators, etcetera—without giving them room to actually use their talents.

Malcolm and Marie doesn’t exactly translate as the Oscar-worthy film some critics hinted it would be prior to its release. Yes, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the actors really do a great job of making you hate them, but is it really great art when you have to rely on the abuse of women and the plight of Black people to make a statement? It certainly is an interesting way to speak on the tragedy that is being a muse.