Talking to the Film Critic Who (Maybe) Inspired Malcolm & Marie

Zendaya and John David Washington in Malcolm & Marie. Photo: Dominic Miller/Netflix

Malcolm and Marie may be the only two people who appear onscreen in Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, but an unseen third character looms nearly as large. She’s a film critic for the Los Angeles Times — “the white lady from the L.A. Times,” in the parlance of the script — whose every action inspires teeth-gnashing anguish in John David Washington’s Malcolm. First, she praises his film at its premiere, but only compares him to other Black directors. Then she writes a positive review, but in terms he feels have more to do with signaling her own progressive politics than genuinely grappling with the work. Finally, she suggests that Malcolm’s handling of his female protagonist is marked by the male gaze, a critique that inspires one of the film’s many, many monologues. “You can’t hang everything on identity,” he says. “You can’t say that I brilliantly subverted this trope ’cause I’m Black, but I fell into this one because I’m a fucking man!”

And to top it all off, the review is paywalled!

As with Marriage Story, it didn’t take long for viewers to make an autobiographical connection. Levinson’s previous film, 2018’s Assassination Nation, had received a scathing pan from Katie Walsh, who is white, female, and a freelancer for the L.A. Times. Assassination Nation is an exploitation thriller about teen girls, and Walsh’s review centered on similar issues of identity. “The filmmakers have the gall to spend nearly two hours assaulting the audience with sexualized violence,” she wrote, “only to turn around and offer up a patronizing lecture on the contradictory social conditioning of women as some kind of grrrl power rallying cry.”

Levinson has denied that the unseen critic is a stand-in for Walsh, though that hasn’t stopped many viewers from interpreting Malcolm & Marie as a 90-minute axe-grinding session. What does the woman herself think? Walsh has been reticent about making herself the center of the story, but earlier this month, she agreed to speak to Vulture over Zoom to discuss the experience of seeing her three-year-old review possibly inspire a major motion picture. “My friend said I should get a Super Yaki T-shirt that says ‘White Lady at the L.A. Times,’” she says. “I was like, ‘No. I do not want that title.’”

Have you seen Malcolm & Marie? I noticed that you didn’t review it.
Yes, I have seen the movie. I did not review it. I didn’t think that would be a good idea; it’s too thorny. I did review it on Letterboxd, but I just put an ellipsis.

How many stars did you give it on Letterboxd?
I didn’t give it any stars. Until talking to you I’ve been trying to be a little bit cryptic.

Are you comfortable sharing whether you liked the movie?
I don’t feel like I can critically assess it. I watched it in a blur. I thought there were some interesting ideas in Assassination Nation, and I think there are some interesting ideas in Malcolm & Marie. I just don’t think they’re executed well. You see these flashes of brilliance and then it descends in this contradictory, messy way. Perhaps that’s the point: that these conversations are messy, whether they’re conversations about relationships or conversations about criticism. But I don’t know that I got anything too illuminating from it.

Did you have any advance warning going in?
I did. At the end of December, a colleague called me and said, “Hey, just want to let you know, you should see this movie because there are a lot of references to a white lady at the L.A. Times.” She knows that the critic for the L.A. Times is Justin Chang, and there are only a couple of women who are freelance critics there. She saw that I had written the Assassination Nation review, so she was like, “You should start trying to see this movie.”

I emailed Netflix for a month asking if I could go to one of the virtual screenings. I didn’t say anything about the references. They finally sent me the screener on [January] 20 and I saw it on the 21st, which was the day before the review embargo lifted. So I did have a heads-up, and by the time I got the screener I was getting messages from other people, too.

How many messages would you say you get a week?
I mean, I’ve probably gotten maybe one a day. Sometimes it’s just people saying, “Oh my God, I had no idea it was you, and then I read the piece.”

What was the experience of watching the movie like for you?
It wasn’t fun. I hated it. Not that I hated the movie, just the experience. It was uncomfortable and unpleasant, being like, “Is this directed at me?” So I feel like I can’t fully speak to all of the arguments in it. I thought about rewatching it, and then I was like, “I can’t rewatch this.”

It sounds like you subscribe to the theory that this is not random, that there is some connection here.
Okay, so: I think there’s an important distinction to be made. Because of the repeated references to “the white lady at the L.A. Times” and the way her review becomes this dumpster for Malcolm to heap all of his scorn upon, it feels vindictive. But I also want to say that the character as it is written is not me. The review that she writes is not me. The way that she behaves at the premiere is not me. I think the connection could be made; I’m not the person who started making these connections.

Sam Levinson keeps saying that he’s surprised that people are connecting the character to me — I mean, maybe that’s true, or maybe it’s naïve. I don’t know what to believe about what his intention was, but I think that brings up another meta-conversation on top of the film’s own meta-conversation about intention versus perception. Part of what makes criticism fun is that everyone can have their own relationship with a film and it doesn’t have to be what the director intended. But, anyway, I have no idea. It feels pointed.

You mentioned the way that she acts at the premiere is not the way you would act. Can you elaborate a little more on that?
At the premiere, she goes up to Malcolm and she’s like, “I loved the film. You’re the next Barry Jenkins, you’re the next Spike Lee.” I think any critic would absolutely cringe at going up to a filmmaker after a premiere and giving them a rave reaction. It’s just not something anyone would do, especially if I was reviewing the film hours later. Maybe if the review was already posted and I met someone at a thing, I’d say, “Oh my God, I loved your movie.” But not before. It’s so frowned upon.

What is the difference between doing it before or after? Because it’s tipping your hand?
Sometimes I want the review to be what it is. Sometimes if I love a film and I have a good relationship with a publicist, I will tell them, “It was great.” But it’s kind of awkward to tell a filmmaker that. It’s just not something I would say.

From what we heard of the review, did you think the fictional woman was a good writer?
The review becomes a catchall for every single critical sin that could potentially be committed. But I don’t even think it’s that bad. It’s weird because she does give him such a rave review and then he tears her apart. He’s using her against Marie in a way, as well: She gets triangulated into their relationship in this really weird way. So I feel for this female critic. She doesn’t want to be in this at all. She’s just doing her job.

At times I thought the film critic was the most three-dimensional character in the movie. She’s the only person whose words carry any subtext, even if it’s a subtext she’s not aware of.
That’s true. People are comparing this to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where [the central couple] have the younger couple to throw their issues into stark relief. The female critic in Malcolm & Marie becomes that younger couple, the thing that they’re using to fight with each other. The thing is, she doesn’t get to defend herself or be a participant in the conversation, really. So, whether or not this character is based on me, I think any female critic could see themselves in this.

Malcolm makes a lot of critiques about the state of contemporary film criticism. He’s unquestionably a blowhard, a jerk, and terrible in all sorts of ways. But do you think he ever has a point?
I do think that there’s a valid point to be made about filmmakers being boxed into making a Black film, or making a female film, or making a Latinx film. Being relegated to these identity silos. That is a fair point, but I don’t think that it lands. When you’re trying to make an argument, you have to draw your audience in and make it easy for them to understand. Having this character just scream random filmmakers’ names? I don’t think that does the argument any justice.

It did make me a little self-conscious, especially when Malcolm and Marie are reading the review and making fun of the way the white critic switches into Black-coded syntax. I had to question whether I’d ever written like that. Did you ever get that feeling, too?
I had to review Judas and the Black Messiah, which has a score that is literally performed by jazz musicians. I was like, “Don’t you dare say that this is ‘jazzy.’” It’s fascinating because that is a film that is explicitly about Black politics and history … I mean, I didn’t let myself get in my head too much about it. But I did think about the “jazzy” part.

Did you end up using “jazzy” or did you go with a different adjective?

There you go.
One of my favorite essays is Renata Adler’s brutal takedown of Pauline Kael, “The Perils of Pauline.” She dissects Kael’s writing, her word choices and her little quirks, and she eviscerates it. I know some critics don’t like it because they think it’s too mean-spirited, but I think it’s worth reading for any writer to learn what their crutches are. I definitely don’t think critics are above criticism at all. I just don’t like how ugly the discourse gets. The stuff that Malcolm says gets really violent: “Fuck you with a cactus dick.” I have no idea if that was in the script or if that was something that was improvised, but it feels personal. It feels gendered. Why don’t they say this stuff about the white-guy critics?

I suppose the argument would be that it’s to show that Malcolm is abusive and has really terrible ways of relating with women.
Yes, that is the argument that you can make. But when you give him that oxygen, let him get those jabs in, that’s what bothered me. Mary McNamara wrote a really good piece that was like, female critics get horrible things said about them all the time. Fortunately, I haven’t had too much hate directed at me, but I’ve gotten weird things said about me on Twitter. So it’s not just a conversation about criticism. He’s abusing this woman in the same way that he’s abusing his girlfriend. You can say, “This is what Malcolm does.” But why are we giving him so much time to say those things?

There are interesting things, though. When they called the woman mediocre, I was like, “Oh God, I am mediocre.” But then, when Marie calls Malcolm mediocre, he’s like, “How dare you call me mediocre?” That is an interesting idea: He can dish it out, but he can’t take it. Maybe that’s the whole idea of the movie. But there are no consequences for Malcolm. All that happens is they get tired, they submit, they go to sleep. I know that depiction is not endorsement, but it does feel like it’s coming from a personal place for Levinson. He has said that it’s based on a real incident in his life, and I don’t think that he can fully distance himself from Malcolm being his mouthpiece. Netflix has marketed the film as a love story, and people are saying, “Oh my God, this guy’s an asshole. Why doesn’t Marie leave him?” Levinson is like, “He’s an asshole. You have to understand that he’s an asshole.” But you haven’t painted the picture enough to see, does Malcolm change his ways? Is he growing? Is Marie going to leave him? I don’t think there’s enough of an arc there. But that’s just me.

My last question: Was this the most negative feedback you’ve ever gotten on a review?
The funny thing about the Assassination Nation review is that I didn’t really feel it had much impact when it came out. It didn’t go viral. There wasn’t a ton of feedback. I didn’t hear from anybody. But last January I was at the L.A. Film Critics Awards dinner and I ran into some people from Neon, who distributed Assassination Nation, and they quoted the review to my face. At first I was taken aback because I didn’t know what they were talking about. It was a year and a half later. Then I was mortified. I was like, “Sorry.” But then we had a laugh about it.

Early in my career I had a couple of experiences at film festivals where directors would come up to my face and be like, “You shouldn’t have given that a C-plus,” or whatever. Or quibble with me about a word choice. And sometimes they were right! I think I have learned every lesson in this business by making the mistake. But I will not say that the Assassination Nation review was a mistake. I am not going to say that at all.

But [the conversation with those directors], that was a good conversation. It made me a better writer. Malcolm is saying, “Don’t put identity into criticism and don’t assign identity to my film,” and that’s fine, you can say that. But I also think that I bring my identity to everything I watch. I can’t take it off. It’s complicated, but it’s a good conversation to have, if you have it in a nice way. I know that sounds Pollyannaish. But when I got the heads-up about the references, I was like, “Maybe this will spark a really interesting discussion about criticism.” I think it has, but I also was not prepared for how ugly the movie gets. It’s not a high-minded discussion about criticism and art. It’s venting. So whether it’s directed at me or at critics in general, I think [Levinson] should have disguised it a little bit better. If he had had the foresight to make it a different person, or a different publication, then the film wouldn’t be seen as a revenge movie. And we wouldn’t be talking about this.

The Film Critic Who (Maybe) Inspired Malcolm & Marie