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Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog

I know, I know, the movie has only two characters and both of them are Black. But just because only Black people are on screen, that does not ipso facto make the result a Black movie, if by “Black” we also mean culture and consciousness rather than simply or solely phenotype (i.e. color).

Movies, especially those that attempt to be more than a commercial hit, such movies are complex and rarely one-dimensional. They aim to go beyond mall movies, they aim to be considered serious cinema.

I think Malcolm and Marie strives to be taken seriously. Why else is the movie so, almost unbelievably, beautifully shot in black and white when most contemporary movies are in color, especially television, music videos, and those moments (birthdays, anniversaries, get-togethers, etc.) we take with our cell phones? Whether we are aware or not, color is how most of us see everything and also, these days, is how we like reality to be presented.

To play off the choice the producers made, is it possible today for a movie to be “authentic” if it’s not in color?

I have questions and observations about this movie:

 

#1

I think there are really three characters in this movie. The third character does not utter one mumbling word, yet frames all the action. In cinema they call it mise en scene, i.e. the setting. However, some settings are more than a place. Without making any verbal requests or demands, the exquisite, multi-level architecture of the Caterpillar House is ideal for filming. Located by the sea near Caramel, California, who wouldn’t want to live there? Malcolm says the film company rented the place for him while they were working on his latest movie; don’t you think he wants to own the house, or at the very least be in a financial position to afford a house like this?

We should be able to aspire to ownership and the option to live where and how we want to, especially if we have a relative misanthrope bias as far as who and how close our neighbors live to us. While we have the right, is it really healthy to live totally divorced from our people. On the other hand, given the current technology available to all, or to most, of us, can’t we stay in touch without living in close proximity to each other? Must we segregate ourselves or even live in high-class ghettoes to be considered “authentic”? Moreover, who defines authentic and why is authenticity so important, especially when racial authenticity is reductively defined by shared oppression and discrimination? There are no easy answers. 

 

#2

The use of music is interesting. 

I am a big fan of the classic Duke Ellington/John Coltrane rendition of “In A Sentimental Mood”. William Bell’s 1969 R&B hit “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” is successfully a major part of the movie’s exposition. I was particularly struck by and attracted to Archie Shepp’s sonic recitation of classical composer Antonin Dvorak’s jazz-inflected “Goin’ Home” that is offered near the conclusion of the movie. Dionne Warwick’s “Get Rid Of Him” is unheeded ironic commentary. James Brown’s “Down And Out In New York City” is used to open the movie with a bang that features Malcolm celebratory dancing and leaping about. And the movie’s concluding out-tro is by Outkast featuring Cee-Lo Green.

The artist Labrinth provided the original soundtrack music but he is over-matched by the aforementioned compositions. Malcom & Marie employs music at a deeper and more extensive level than as an opening gambit for the audience’s attention and a closing sound-bed over which to run the credits. Hopefully this broad-based use of music will be picked up by more Hollywood movies that are not specifically music themed.

 

#3

Malcolm rags on a white woman critic who has previously damned his work and who is subsequently blown away and effusive in her praise for Malcolm’s new movie, especially the sensitivity of Malcolm’s rendering of a woman working to get drug-free. Malcolm is incensed and resentful of what he considers patronizing and disrespectful. In response Marie wryly delivers one of the great shades of the movie: is this how you act when you get a great review?

As a movie-maker, which is it? Does he aspire for commercial success or philosophical relevance? Can one have both?

 

#4

Part of the modern edginess of Malcolm & Marie is the literal near pornography of Marie at first dressed in a gown that accentuates her breasts and has a split in the front up near her groin, and then dressed in a tight tank top and briefs for the balance of the movie. She even comments on her “string bean” body and says she knows that she is not fully Malcolm’s type physically. 

Her legs are long. She is attractive without being glamorous. But what it really is: she is super sexy. However, she is actually pissed off with Malcolm. Hence the castrating inference of Marie angrily chopping a stick of butter while preparing Malcolm’s mac&cheese.

Two decades ago showing (flaunting?) this much woman flesh might have been considered soft porn. . .I think displays of female near nudity was an intentional aspect. Over, and over again, one of Hollywood’s favorite tropes is a fully clothed man interacting with a nearly naked woman.

 

#5

The couple never discusses Malcolm being color-struck or that the “fairness” of Marie’s skin is an attraction for Malcolm. They are having deep arguments with each other, sometimes even spouting overly hurtful barbs, yet color per se is never discussed. Why not? Especially, since “making it” as a dark-skinned man, particularly athletes and entertainers, too often includes acquiring a light-skinned, if not an “authentic” (there’s that word again) white mate.

 

#6

Malcolm X, but clearly not this Malcolm, forcefully asserted that the Black woman is the most disrespected person in the world. He challenged us to change that reality. 

With Malcolm shown literally kissing Marie’s ass in private while overlooking her and “forgetting” to acknowledge or thank her in public, aren’t we witnessing the degradation and ignoring of Black women by an alleged lover of a Black woman. Like Marie says, “you thanked everybody else”. Can he really love her, if he can’t recognize how hurtful his behavior is toward the Black woman to whom he is romantically linked?

And by the way, do either of them want to have children? Romance is real but parenting is more real, especially if and when they choose to have children. What kind of  “daddy” will Malcolm be? How will he and Marie prepare the children for whom they are responsible to survive within a white dominated society?

 

#7

One big issue shown but not commented on is that Malcolm either is or is well on the way to being an alcoholic. He’s drinking so much he probably passed out in bed. For her part, Marie is shown emotionally dependent on tobacco. Have cigarettes supplanted pills as her drug of choice? 

 

#8

I think both Zendaya and John David Washington lived up to the task of acting in a two character movie–might even call it Virginia Wolf-redux, except that rather then rage about her conundrums, Marie ruefully accepts psychological debasement–and that is what Malcolm telling her story in film as a male director without even offering her (i.e. his significant-other who once was an actor) the opportunity to be in his film based on Marie’s life experiences.

Initially Malcolm denies that his lauded movie is either about her or significantly influenced  by her story of struggles with addiction at a young age. Malcolm’s lame justifications that the movie is not about Marie implies that this is a blind spot at best and more probably an outright lie.

Without an iota of self-awareness, he boasts that he has had relations with “plenty” of women. Malcolm’s bragging about sex with other women is both infuriating and insulting. Marie’s rejoinder is classic: “I didn’t ask”.

When Marie mimes fellatio and Malcolm virtually begs her not to stop, the movie clarifies he enjoys being sexually serviced by Marie but we are not shown him giving her sexual pleasure even though at a different time she says she has no complaints about sex with him.

From functioning as his trophy, sexy girlfriend, to fixing him mac&cheese on demand, to giving him a “blow job”, Marie is clearly presented as Malcolm’s intimate handmaiden. Of course, Malcolm probably doesn’t see it that way, but what else are we shown? And what does he do for her?

He once helped her overcome dependency on pills but in the words of a long ago pop classic question: what has he done for her lately?

Zendaya’s subtle, non-hysterical approach is far more effective than ostentatious screaming and hollering. Moreover, the impact of her persona and delivery is not just in what she says, but also how she ennunciates both the pain she feels as well as demonstrates her determination not to be overwhelmed by an uncaring, older lover.

Clearly, the writer/director/producer Sam Levinson has a lot to say about artistic integrity and about the elevation of women in general and Black women in particular as sex objects while simultaneously low-rating them as essential partners in life. 

Hence, this is why I say Malcolm & Marie is not a Black movie. Singing James Brown, moaning the William Bell song (“I forgot to be your lover”), and gobbling up mac&cheese does not by itself authenticate this as a Black movie.

Levinson made a stylishly presented, beautifully filmed, emotionally challenging movie about artistic integrity intertwined with the difficulties of maintaining a romantic relationship respecting equitable gender relations.

As for being a Black movie, Malcolm & Marie could have featured white actors and not had to change even one word, or altered any scene. While there are clearly issues all couples deal with or avoid, being Black in white America is a deep issue for interpersonal relations that Hollywood consistently either eschews entirely or touches only the surface.

Malcolm gets major acclaim for making a movie based on Marie’s life, while she gets ignored. Men such as Malcolm like to fuck Black women but really don’t respect them as sentient human beings.

 

#9

Oh, that “mac&cheese” thing. Your boy didn’t grown up wolfing down his food at the dinner table. How do I know? Because of the description of his family. Malcolm is depicted scoffing down his chow as if he had no table manners. That would definitely have been a no-no, even if he was going back for a second helping. The upwardly mobile Black middle class does not abide acting like a no-class ignoramus when it comes to proper decorum at the dinner table.

Malcolm has pent-up resentments and literally rages when he does let out some of what is bottled up deep inside him. Dig the scene when he goes outside and is literally fighting the air. He feels besieged. Is it racial resentment or is it his feelings about being disrespected as a serious artist? Or is the issue a bitter cocktail of major and minor concerns. If he is so upset about how the world treats him, how does he think Marie feels about the way he treats her?

 

While Malcolm & Marie is a major step forward, I wish it had gone further in addressing the issues Black people face, particularly when we can not afford, nor do many of us even desire, to live in the shinning house on the hill.

At the end of the movie, Malcolm wakes up in bed alone. Marie is not there. Where is she? Throughout the movie, Malcolm is thrown into a tizzy whenever he feels that Marie is about to or has actually abandoned him.

When Marie goes outside, Malcolm insists on knowing where she was. She says she went outside to urinate although the movie has already opened with an invasion of privacy moment. Marie is graphically shown going into the bathroom and doing her business on the toilet.   

Levinson has long shots of Malcolm urinating directly contrasting with his use of close-ups of Marie urinating–what gives with that? Is pissing a Black thing general audiences must be shown over and again in order for us to understand? Understand what?

So, at the end of the movie, Marie is pictured outside, standing on the landscape rise, looking out, presumably toward the ocean. It’s literally a silent scene obviously shot through the glass wall of the house. Eventually, Malcolm joins her but he does not touch her nor embrace her.

They stand side by side but separate. The next morning after over an hour of fussing and fighting the previous night, no getting together is shown. 

There is no physical reconciliation nor union between Malcolm and Marie–what a sad ending that is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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