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Sam Levinson Responds to ‘Malcolm & Marie’ Criticisms: Age Gap, Writing Black Characters, and More

Levinson explains why he never worried about writing a movie about Black characters.

"Malcolm and Marie"

“Malcolm and Marie”

Netflix

From filming under strict COVID safety protocols last summer to selling the film to Netflix in a blockbuster deal worth a reported $30 million, Sam Levinson’s journey with “Malcolm & Marie” has never stopped making headlines. The relationship drama, starring Zendaya and John David Washington, is now proving to be one of the most critically divisive titles in the awards race. Several criticisms have been lobbied at Levinson since the film started screening last month, from his actors’ age gap to his decision to write a film about two Black characters. The writer-director has been confronting these criticisms head-on in recent interviews with Esquire UK and The Independent.

When it comes to the 12-year age gap between Zendaya and Washington, Levinson told The Independent he understands why that might be a cause for concern, as age gaps are “something that historically happen a lot in films with older male actors and younger female ones and it often has nothing to do with the story.” Because the film’s storyline reckons with the age difference between Malcolm and Marie, and how it contributes to the imbalance of power in their relationship, Levinson said, “I’m just not sure the criticism is applicable to this particular project because [the age difference] is part of its DNA.”

Both Zendaya and Washington have brushed off the age gap criticism as well. Zendaya told People magazine that viewers need to remember she is a 24-year-old adult in real life, although she understands why they might not as “Malcolm & Marie” is her first adult role after a career of playing characters still in middle or high school. Washington said in a separate interview with Variety that he “wasn’t concerned” about being 12 years older than Zendaya because the “Euphoria” actress “is a woman.”

“People are going to see in this film how much of a woman she is,” Washington said. “She has far more experience than I do in the industry. I’ve only been in it for seven years. She’s been in it longer, so I’m learning from her. I’m the rookie. I was leaning on her for a lot…What I’m really excited for people to see when the film is released — they’re going to see how mature she is in this role.”

A large portion of Levinson’s “Malcom & Marie” script finds Washington’s filmmaker character railing against white critics for politicizing his work when that was not his intention. That Levinson, a white filmmaker, would tackle a script about two Black characters that concerns the making and reception of Black art has raised a red flag for some, but for Levinson, it was never an issue.

When Esquire UK asked if he had any worries about making “Malcolm & Marie” as a white man, Levinson responded, “No, because I have faith in the collaborative process and in my partners that if I write something that doesn’t feel true, that JD or Z don’t respond to or feel to be honest, that they are going to say something and we’ll work it out. I didn’t have anxiety in that sense because I have too much respect for the collaborative nature of filmmaking.”

Levinson may have sole screenplay credit, but “Malcolm & Marie” was a collaborative experience and nothing made it into the screenplay that wasn’t cleared by the actors. As the director said in his Independent interview, “There’s certain things that I’m not going to get 100-percent right about what it feels to be a Black creative, but what I can do is write what feels true to the character and have faith in the collaborative process of filmmaking”.

Levinson also spoke about the controversy over his decision to have Malcolm rail against the “white critic from the Los Angeles Times” throughout the film. As many critics have noted, including Justin Chang in his L.A. Times review, Levinson’s feature directorial project “Assassination Nation” was panned in the LA Times by freelance critic Katie Walsh. When The Independent brought up Walsh’s review, Levinson downplayed that it had anything to do with inspiring “Malcolm & Marie.”

“Look,” Levinson said. “It just sounded funny. Every time Malcolm says it, it just makes you laugh.”

“Malcolm & Marie” is now streaming on Netflix.

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