Letters To My Daughters: Good Art, Bad Art, Black Art and the Mysterious Case of Malcolm & Marie
“If I don’t like I don’t like it, I don’t like it/It don’t mean that I’m hating…” — Common “6th Sense”
The first time around watching Malcolm & Marie, the latest must-see stream TV on Netflix featuring the rising stars of Zendaya and John David Washington, we stopped watching after the first five minutes. After much exasperated eye-rolls, shrugged shoulders and frustration, my partner and I found a salve in watching New Jack City. Our little played with the other TV remotes we left for her, the ones without the batteries in them, that entertained her over the course of the hour and some change of Ice-T, Chris Rock, Wesley Snipes and their stunt doubles chasing, cursing, and shooting at each other against the backdrop of a crack infested, crime ridden city. As a self-professed 80’s baby who went to college in the 2000’s, who will almost always fawn over anything 80’s and 90’s (including anything that falls in the Neo Soul era of art and music) related and created, the notion that anything created after these time periods can sometimes feel like a foreign concept. I can readily admit and see my biases up close, front and center. But also, as much as aging continues to shape my views on contemporary art, much in the same ways how those who heard the Blues, heard Bebop, saw Thelonius Monk perform live for the first time, heard Same Cooke turn secular and Marvin Gaye turn sex symbol, what defines good art and bad art is a blurred line. Add into the conversation of Black art and I wonder if my daughters will dissect the same scenes I watch over and over with the same kind of intense vigor that I do. Because I realize that I have also always been an art snob.
I have always firmly believed there is good art and bad art. Ever since I was my eldest daughter’s age. I remember being five years old and knowing “Around the Way Girl” was a personal favorite, that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were fresh; that New Edition was dope and New Kids On the Block were the Walmart version; that Reginald Hudlin and Spike Lee deserved the flowers then and they deserve the flowers now. There were music and films and the artists behind them that not only stood to the test of times but pushed everything else that would come after it, forward: Tupac, Chuck D, Denzel. Even now, knowing how we all have opinions and the freedom of choice, choosing the Blueface’s and Brent Faiyaz’s of the world to me feels like a poor decision based primarily on a lack of care for your well-being and your ears. But, again people get to choose and decide what art is actually art and what speaks to them. So, when watching Malcolm & Marie I am left wondering why is this being given flowers it doesn’t deserve? The Amazon Prime film Sylvie’s Love, did a better job of exploring Black love and its dynamics. The writing wasn’t too notch but the actors delivered. But again, choices and opinions.
I know who I am: I have become the beguiled and beleaguered old head who critiques art with a fine tooth comb, comparing and contrasting generational differences in nuances in everything, while blatantly ignoring the complexities and nuances of art and art creation for the times the artists making said art exist in. I am fully prepared to tell my daughters they “don’t know about this when they get older” because they don’t. They never will fully be able to understand what the crackling sound of a needle atop of a longed for vinyl feels and sounds like; the feeling of the freedom of sweating and dancing with everyone in unison when “All About the Benjamins” came out. But, I will never understand what it means to them when the latest Youtube celebrity or Tik Tok star shouts out their city in a video or drops into town impromptu and shares it on their IG Stories. Those moments will be as sacred for them as my moments were for me. Our feelings about the art we both love and loathe are subjective in nature, conditioned by the shitty street blocks we were raised on, the inherent biases that have grown in us, that we cling to and are attached to by heartstring and hip: the sounds of a voice, the melody of a hum or hook; the bounce of a beat.
Is it Black art if it is written with white hands? How do we dissect and classify it? Can we celebrate the authenticity of an idea without labeling the performance of the idea as a masterpiece, because we are seeing ourselves reflected in the roles played by performers? Are we so starved for anything that lives outside of what we are normally offered as lovers of Black art and cinema that we cannot properly critique when something misses the mark? Can we love some parts without needing to love the whole? These are questions I don’t have the answer to but questions I want us to continue to use when we probe the work of our favorites.
Art is no different than how we speak about the human experience — there are people we hate, people we despise, and there are also people who can do no wrong. My fear with our tendency to avoid mindfully critiquing Black art is that we will not take risks, rather leaning on tropes to tell stories rather than trying to find the truth and intention behind the art we are attempting to create.
For all its bells and whistles, Malcolm & Marie felt like an attempt of an arthouse film, without the dynamism. I can celebrate Zendaya and John David Washington while also saying in the same breath “nice try. Try again.” We get to push our art and the artists who make it to be better — not solely by taking on and tackling a challenging and daunting role, but for pushing themselves to discover what is underneath that role, that tension.
I’ve made bad art. Really bad art. My attempt at bad art was needed in order to make good art. The stickiness of good art is that it outlasts the time in which it was created. Channel Orange transcends its genre. Rocky is a classic because the story will always come back to two star-crossed lovers who were completely opposite of one another, but found themselves in each other. Serena Williams makes art on the court; the same way Kobe did, Lebron does. Good art is almost never up for debate. Bad art always is because no one shows us how to critique work. The lack of gatekeeping has made it possible for so many of us, myself included, to make art and decisions about our art, that are uninhibited, free of recourse and tone policing. The lack of gatekeeping also creates art free of recourse, with no real way to measure the art created can stand up to the art before it or the art that will follow. Malcolm & Marie was made in a silo and it shows — without a community of those tied to the work, what we see is a work unbound and unregulated, that feels unsettled and not refined. That rawness can be really great with the right cast, or really bad with the wrong ones.
For so long I wagged my finger at Tyler Perry movies, often times comparing him and his body of work to his contemporaries — his characters lacked range, the stories felt sophomoric and pulled right from a soap opera series. Until I began to realize how much my mother loves Tyler Perry. And how much my brother and his wife love him too. And I had to stop being elitist and realize how much of what Tyler does isn’t for me. It’s for an audience that craves to see these stories, can hear their mothers and their brothers in those stories. And that there is as much room for a Tyler Perry story as there is room for an Ava story, a Spike Lee, a Spike Jonze or Scorsese story. Often times, as Black viewers, because we have been offered so little room to try stories on that live outside of a studio’s expectations, the feeling that everything we do must be exceptional is a feeling all too familiar — in film, in music… in life. Black art gets to be bad. If we are progressing, if we are truly practicing and preaching. equality as a society, then our art gets to run the gamut, the full spectrum of excellent to mediocre to horrid.
My partner and I revisited Malcolm & Marie. I got drunk. It got better. Not a lot better. At all. Zendaya is growing. John David Washington seems to get away with be the dashing man who gets to play himself but just different levels of intensity of self (i.e. — Michael B. Jordan. Sorry not sorry.) The intimacy between Malcolm and Marie as both characters and as actors felt like make-believe, two people forced into a construct, not because of the tearing of their relationship, but due to the lack of depth from the actors playing them. This did not feel like a character driven storyline with real arcs, but as if two people memorized lines and decided this is how they would interact with each other for the rest of the film. The two actors played archetypes. To the “this was written like a play” and “this captured the raw emotions” arguments, yes. This felt like a play — a high school drama where the young adults are swimming in big kid clothes rummaging their bodies for feelings they haven’t experienced. The words written by Sam Levinson work well against the muddy portrayals of teen pain and trauma for “Euphoria” but feel vapid and full of themselves in Malcolm & Marie.
To be fair, I also decided to go back to a 90’s classic: I rewatched Deep Cover. And no matter how much Larry Fishburne digs into his character work, the film itself is very much a movie made in the early 90’s, replete with overplayed Black characters, Spanish drug lords and Italian mobsters who speak with their hands and guns. I stopped watching that too. You know what I call that? Growth. I hope my daughters appreciate it when I retell this story and lie about how good it actually was.