Directed and written by Sam Levinson, Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie is nothing like Euphoria, his HBO teen drama series on addiction, sex, and identity. The movie may have been filmed in quiet seclusion due to COVID-19 safety restrictions, but it is still a verbal onslaught.

If Malcolm & Marie is supposed to be the public venting of an ongoing argument that constantly plays out in Levinson’s head, the prevailing side is that he should stop writing about people struggling from addiction, or people who are transitioning, because he has no business telling their stories for them.

At the start of the film, Malcolm (John David Washington), arrives home from the premiere of his new film, which just so happens to be a story about a young woman suffering from substance abuse. His girlfriend and muse, Marie (Zendaya), who’s experience through rehab and relapse is the inspiration for Malcolm’s film, is angry because he forgot to thank her in his speech.

Her frustration is not surprising, because as the film unravels, Malcolm is a raving madmen who treats Marie like his personal, damaged plaything. Clearly a stand-in for Levinson, Malcolm spends most of the film’s runtime complaining about critics, while Marie, the over-sexualized, doting female, smiles and listens.

Though the “white lady from the L.A. Times” loves his film, Malcolm still monologues about how critics can’t separate his identity from his film’s subject matter because this same critic once wrote an unfavorable review of his previous film. That a white female critic for the L.A. Times once panned Levinson’s film Assassination Nation (2018) can’t be a coincidence. Even so, that Malcolm is angry at this because he’s Black, while Levinson is white (and the son of Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson), is another matter entirely.

But some of Malcolm’s diatribes do hold merit. Creatives of color are often described in media with their race as a defining prefix–”Black musician,” “Asian activist,” “Trans actor,”–and such descriptions shouldn’t always influence how their work is received. It’s not often that “White” is written as a descriptor with the same intent, but Malcolm & Marie‘s kvetching of a white writer told through Black character shields might just be the first.

Throughout the film, Levinson has Malcolm writhe and explode, and it’s hard not to view the event as anything other than self-sabotage. He must have thought that he had two convincing arguments at war with one another, but whenever Marie eventually gets a second to respond, she’s often right.

“I can’t tell my fucking story anymore,” she says, “because you already did.”

Malcolm shoots back at Marie by saying that you need more than the details of someone’s life to make a compelling story. It’s how you frame and display a story, like in a film, that truly captures it. It’s how you stage it. He’s partly right, until he argues that he is a creative genius and only someone with a magical movie mind like his could accurately tell her story. Marie picks up on this, and chides him that the real reason he doesn’t let his subjects tell their own stories is because of his own narcissistic ego.

With this, Sam Levinson digs his own grave. It’s no wonder now why the second Euphoria special was so much better than the first. Hunter Schafer, the trans actress who plays “Jules,” was finally allowed to write the episode herself.

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