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On Zendaya’s birthday, looking at the actor’s layered performance in Malcolm & Marie

Zendaya, the 25-year-old spunky youth icon, actress, singer and dancer, has a cap choc-a-block with feathers. On her birthday today, here is a look at her in Sam Levinson’s lockdown drama Malcolm & Marie (on Netflix), a film that garnered her unprecedented and undisputed praise.

Pratishruti Ganguly
Sep 01, 2021
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An intimate relationship drama inside a labyrinthian posh apartment that slowly but surely cleaves open the cracks of a long-standing brittle relationship — Malcolm & Marie had a tough task at hand. The central argument is fairly unidimensional — it is about a woman asking to be appreciated, validated and understood. It is about an entitled man arguing about creative agency. The odds are stacked against Malcolm (John David Washington) from the beginning, and yet, it is to the actor’s credit that the exhaustive conversations about individuality and companionship never feel skewed in favour of Marie (Zendaya).

The setting is thus — a night of a movie premiere plummets into a searing argument between a director and his girlfriend/muse. He asks why Marie is not performative enough in her congratulating Malcolm after bringing home a coveted award. Marie rebuffs, seething in anger about something Malcolm can’t quite figure out. She proceeds to make macaroni and cheese in response, adding that this is her way of celebrating the man of the moment.

Zendaya’s Marie is a mid-twenties Black woman and a former drug addict. She is the unsung heroine of her vain boyfriend’s masterpieces. His films, raved about by critics, are inspired by Marie’s struggle with substances. But Malcolm argues it is his observant filmmaking that has earned him his accolades, not the fact that he has heavily drawn inspiration from his unacknowledged muse. Arguably, Washington has the lion's share of dramatic outbursts in the movie. His narcissism, casual oversights, non-recognition of Marie finds expression in myriad ways, from breaking into copious amounts of tears, to screaming in frustration over Marie’s indecisiveness.

He reminds her that he has apologised for his lapses in being adequately appreciative of Marie, she tells him, after careful consideration, she has decided to go back on forgiving him. But Marie is a woman of few words. Her rebuttals are carefully edited to keep Malcolm and the audience on the tenterhooks. She is looking for a showdown, but is biding time to perhaps string together the millions of complaints coursing through her brain, not quite ready to pop out yet. Zendaya’s task, hence, is the harder one here. She’s quieter, steelier and borderline unintelligible. But it is in this role that Zendaya proves she’s no longer just a teen icon with impeccable sartorial choice.

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Among many others, the mac and cheese scene in the film is a testament to Zendaya’s acting chops. She vengefully slices a slab of butter and splashes it onto the pan. The camera remains steadfastly focused on her as he plucks a carton of store-bought macaroni from the kitchen cabinet, pours the contents inside a bowl and fills it to the brim with water, as Malcolm shouts out her name in the backdrop in anger and bewilderment. The dramatic tension is at its zenith — Marie turns around, charges ahead with the pan in her hand (Malcolm and the audience half-expecting her to throw it on his face} and then, places it on the stove. Malcolm’s confusion is taken over by fear of Marie’s unpredictability.

For most of the film, Marie stews in her fury. Her arguments are backed by logic, and leave Malcolm tongue-tied. She flits across the sinews of the house undressing, sitting down, making food, making love, scoffing and then, giving up. Zendaya utters every word, conveys every complex emotion without a shred of contrivance. Marie’s outburst — specifically one where she calls Malcolm a mediocre director — is charged with as much disgust as exasperation with Malcolm’s blinkered worldview. She is resentful of Malcolm, and yet, all she wants out of him is empathy.

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The focus on the sharp kitchen knife during the mac and cheese scene is the perfect build-up to perhaps the most potent scene in the movie, where a dishevelled Marie grabs the knife in one hand, plonks herself on the floor, admitting that she has never been clean. Her eyes are bloodshot and frenzied as she hysterically admits to having cheated on him, stealing from his mother, abusing substances and lying about every aspect of her life to her cohabitor. She is neither shameful nor guilty — but she is aware she has pulled the final strand of their crumbling relationship. Just as the atmosphere becomes too claustrophobic to even breathe, Marie breaks the trance with her curtain call — "That, Malcolm, is what authenticity buys you," she tells him, as Malcolm stares at her half-appalled, half-impressed at Marie’s earnest performance. For the actor in Zendaya too, the knife scene establishes how authentic she is to her craft.

Which is perhaps, why, the final monologue that Zendaya delivers comes across as schmaltzy. It is Marie’s closing argument, thus, this is the moment she takes to spell out everything that she demands out of her boyfriend, and everything that her boyfriend has categorically failed to provide her. For a movie that successfully avoids falling into the traps of being too on the nose, the ending is ridden with cliches, of all banal things she wanted Malcolm to thank her for. Nonetheless, Zendaya’s sincerity uplifts the otherwise overly sentimental scene, forcing her audience to buy into her relentless plight of being perpetually sidelined.

If you intend to familiarise yourself with Zendaya’s body of works, this writer would humbly request you to perhaps begin your exploration with Malcolm & Marie. Sam Levinson’s pandemic drama is in no way faultless, but Zendaya is as close to perfect as can get.

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