In ‘Malcolm & Marie,’ Zendaya and John David Washington are ready to kick down Oscars’ door
It’s not often that film work gets compared the days of John Cassavetes/Gena Rowlands/Ben Gazzara but that’s exactly what happened on Friday night when Netflix screened Malcolm & Marie, the third feature film directed by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson and starring Zendaya and John David Washington.
The film is a two-hander, a true pas de deux, in which a filmmaker (Washington) and his girlfriend (Zendaya) return home following a celebratory movie premiere as he awaits what’s sure to be imminent critical and financial success. The evening suddenly takes a turn as revelations about their relationships begin to surface, testing the strength of their love as arrows and barbs fly in the form of cruel insults and devastating truths.
At 24, Zendaya has already made history with her Emmy win as the youngest Lead Actress in a Drama Series winner ever (for Euphoria) and only the second Black actress to take that prize (after Viola Davis in 2015 for How to Get Away with Murder). While a Best Picture nomination is probably a longshot for the film, as a producer Zendaya would become the youngest Best Picture-nominated producer in Academy Awards history and only the third Black woman after Oprah Winfrey with 2014’s Selma and Kimberly Steward for 2016’s Manchester by the Sea. Her bravura turn in Malcolm & Marie, a true soul-bearing barn burner of a performance, could find her alongside Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and Andra Day (The United States vs Billie Holiday), making history as the first time three Black actresses were nominated in lead in the same year.
John David Washington continues to break out from his father Denzel’s shadow. From his awards-worthy performance in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman to having two wildly different films on tap this season for voters to see (he led Tenet last fall), he’s got to be added the ever-growing list of Best Actor hopefuls. Washington tears into the material with gusto, giving voters the type of BIG acting they love. As with his co-star, if Malcolm & Marie is nominated for Best Picture, Washington, as a producer, could find himself in a unique situation – nominated alongside his Oscar-winning father (who is a producer on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom).
The writers branch of the Academy, as well as the Writers Guild, may find themselves very connected with Levison’s script, which takes direct aim at film criticism and film writers (the LA Times takes the brunt of the collateral damage) and how they talk about film. In this case, specifically “Black” film; who should make them, what kinds of stories and what kinds of films Black filmmakers should be making. Much like 2014’s Birdman, Malcolm & Marie, when not centered on the relationship drama, creates an outside villain to unite the couple, a distraction of the volatile struggle the two are currently facing. It’s hard to imagine writers not eating it up.
There’s more technical marvel here than meets the eye and that starts with Marcell Rév’s evocative black and white cinematography. B&W lensing has become a favorite with the Academy and American Society of Cinematographers and the grainy look and long takes will surely be eye candy to them. Don’t underestimate the film’s sound design either. While there may not be action sequences and bullets flying, the sound design combining quiet moments, shouting matches across the Feldman Architecture’s Caterpillar House combined with the film’s music and songs could find some guild love. Speaking of music, enough can’t be said about the original score by Labrinth, who incorporates jazzy trumpet and piano to further give the film’s 70’s roots grounding.
Since the film didn’t have a qualifying 2020 release (as most Netflix films did) it wasn’t eligible for the top tier critics’ groups like Los Angeles, New York and the National Society of Film Critics. But, all televised, industry and guild awards and orgs adopted the extended Oscar eligibility calendar (February 28, 2021) so its push will be as a late-breaker and with an awards season two months longer than normal, it will have the advantage of being on top the February releases being held by studios this year.
Malcolm & Marie will hit Netflix on February 5.
Malcolm & Marie image courtesy of Dominic Miller/Netflix