Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie depicts violence in a way many women can recognize: a simple argument escalates into abuse. When the eponymous lovers return home following the premiere of Malcolm’s film, the two begin arguing about the state of their relationship. Malcolm threatens Marie, laughs at her suicide attempts, punishes her for not performing sexually, and demonizes any insecurity she expresses. The film is not an “emotional reckoning” as the marketing suggests. It is a portrayal of a destructive relationship set in black-and-white, with no optimism for its victim. That would be difficult enough to watch on its own, but there is an additional layer to this exploitation of Black women’s pain.
The film speaks to a growing attitude within white male liberal spaces online: Black’s women’s suffering being used as collateral to express misogyny against white women. This attitude coincides with a new dating term uniquely 2021—wokefishing. Coined by VICE writer Serena Smith, wokefishing describes someone, usually a cis white man, who presents online as more progressive than they actually are. These individuals are co-opting progressive language for nefarious reasons: love, sex, money, fame, or social capital at the expense of real Black suffering. Sam Levinson’s direction of Malcolm & Marie speaks to an additional frontier of wokefishing. In the film, black bodies and “woke language” are used to subvert responsibility for bigoted ideas. To that end, Malcolm & Marie is the ultimate horror movie, in which women—both Black and white—are abused under the guise of art.
Zendaya and Levinson have made great efforts to present Malcolm & Marie as a collaborative effort. In many ways, I believe them. In several interviews, the two have emphasized that Zendaya was instrumental in brokering the allegedly $30-million deal with Netflix.
Recently, when interviewed by The New York Times about the criticism the film is receiving, Zendaya expressed that her power as a collaborator hasn’t been properly considered by critics and concerned audiences alike. When asked about the criticism Levision has been receiving for writing a Black couple as a white man, she said, “What’s interesting is I think a little bit of our agency was stripped away. Like this was just kind of Sam spewing things through us without realizing that we are not only actors in this, but we’re co-financiers and producers with P.G.A. marks. You can’t get those unless you actually do the job.” This is a valid frustration—77% of Hollywood producers and directors are white, while less than 7% are Black. Zendaya and John David Washington are among a tiny group of Black creatives who contribute to the filmmaking process, so it’s understandable that she may feel their collaborative contributions to Malclom and Marie aren’t being considered by critics. Instead, the film has been presented as the sole vision of Levinson.
In the New York Times article, Zendaya said that he wrote Malcolm &Marie “for them.” So how does his view of Black feminine suffering show through his writing? How does he see Zendaya, and in turn, Black women? How does he see Black art? What tropes did Levinson write when fabricating Black art? Is it all pain? Trauma? Worse. Throughout the film, these things become vessels for a self-serving white agenda.
Through Malcolm’s frustration with a white female film critic who reviews his film, Levinson expresses how white people think Black people feel about Black art. Malcolm rants about how this woman critic—whom he calls a “bobblehead”—does not understand film due to her inability to see past the Blackness of himself and his actors. Malcolm stresses that he simply wants to exist in the film world without the politics of Blackness, all ultimately speaking to a white desire to ignore race and ignoring the historical truth that Black art often merges the personal and the political.
To that end, Malcolm dismisses the critic for “politicizing his message” and passionately rants as Marie tries to coax him down from the ledge of sexist fury. Marie offers a solution as to why the critic spoke about Blackness—during the film’s press run, the lead actress spoke about the medical injustices Black women face. Instead of accepting how Blackness functions within art, though, Malcolm blames the actress and offers no apology for his rant, withdrawing from the argument altogether.
Through Malcolm, Levinson uses the Black body as a shield for his own frustrations about film criticism. While Malcolm rants about the white-supremacist film standards Black artists must create under, he references an L.A. Times critic as “The White Lady at The La Times”. A moniker which bears striking resemblance to Katie Walsh—one of the paper’s few female film critics, who trashed his film Assassination Nation. Levinson’s writing not only criticizes the negative review, but invalidates the woman’s understanding of film. It’s a sexist rhetoric that many female critics are familiar with, but because a Black man is saying it, the scene comes off as punching up. It is not. It is punching down with a glove on, and that glove is Blackness.
Through Malcolm, Levinson speaks with conviction about how Black art is stifled into boxes. But really, what does Sam Levison know about that? The film comes off as an attempt to use Black artistic struggles as a shield to express grievances against a white female critic. In one scene, Malcolm refers to the critic pointedly as a “Karen”—a calling card for Black people to humorize the violence white women continue to inflict upon us. But a white man writing a speech about a white woman being a Karen is laughable at best. From my vantage point, this writing isn’t a kind-hearted attempt to speak to the true story of Black struggle. Levinson is using Malcolm’s Blackness to deflect and project his own misogynistic feelings. It’s a racist defense mechanism, using the Black body as a commodity to express “authenticity.”
As of late, white liberal men have been expressing this type of racist misogyny openly across the internet. They use misogynistic language against white women, under the false rhetoric that they are “standing up for people of color.” In one video, a popular TikTok user does a skit about how “life in a world without woke white women” would be peaceful. Several TikTokers, mainly women of color, challenged the creator and expressed how this type of “allyship” actually functions as misogyny. I believe this type of “wokefishing” is similar to Sam Levinson’s aim in Malcolm & Marie: it’s about distancing himself from his own whiteness, maleness, and the violence they inflict.
Since our civil uprising last summer in response to continued police brutality and injustice against Black people, we have seen strange attempts at activism that range from black squares to full marketing campaigns. Months later, it’s clear these performative actions have changed little. Malcolm & Marie feels no different than the performative activists yelling “Black lives matter” while sitting in their gentrified apartments. Or those privileged folks who co-opt anti-capitalist Black language, labor, and pain to prop up their own social standing. These privileged folks are taking moral grandstanding for nefarious hollow purposes. The liberal white men who call white women “Karen,” the performative activists, and Levinson all have something in common: their actions do little to alleviate Black suffering. Instead, in Malcolm & Marie there is blame, gaslighting, shock, terror, and gain at the expense of our trauma. But our pain shouldn’t be a mere spectacle used for political gain, Hinge profiles, revenge on white critics, memes, or your terrible arthouse movie. In Malcolm & Marie, Black women’s exploitation is the plot, the texture, and the point. And that is a horror too real to watch.
By Natalia Berry