When the trailer for Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie dropped earlier this month, it became immediately clear that this isn’t the average quarantine movie. The black-and-white film starring Zendaya opposite John David Washington in the titular roles of Malcolm and Marie, depicts a couple who’s experiencing a shift in their relationship in response to their growth and evolution as individuals. As the two go back-and-forth on a number of various concerns, ownership is one of the major issues they encounter. Not only is the concept of ownership explored within the film with regards to Marie’s struggles, but it was also a significant concept behind the scenes as well.
Zendaya was involved with this film from the early conversations with Euphoria’s co-creator, Sam Levinson, as he prepared to write the script, to the actual execution of the project — on screen and off screen. “He called me in one of our many conversations during quarantine … and he’s like, ‘Yo, Z, I think I got one,’” Zendaya said during a conversation moderated by Janelle Monae. Once Levinson described the idea to Zendaya, she was in. “I said, ‘You got me, go for it. Let’s do this,’” she said. Additionally, in teaming up with Levinson to make Malcolm & Marie, she earned her first PGA credit as a producer. “We own our movie. I’ve never been in a situation or in a spot where I can say that not only did I get to invest in my own movie, but I also own part of my own movie. So when it does well, I do well. I’m taken care of on that side as well, so my contributions are valid,” Zendaya said, “as a young woman, as a young Black woman in this industry, when does that opportunity arise?”
Much like the pride that Zendaya has taken in owning part of this film that she’s contributed so much to, her character, Marie comes face-to-face with the value that comes with owning her own story. In the film, as the couple’s night unfolds once they’ve arrived home from the premiere of Malcolm’s new film, we learn more about Marie and the role her life experiences played in his newfound success. The question of who Marie and her experiences belong to is presented. Similar to her character, Zendaya has lived a life under a watchful eye as well. Except, Zendaya’s audience hasn’t been an observant filmmaker partner — her audience has been the world, and more specifically her fans who’ve watched her grow up.
We were introduced to a teenage Zendaya in Disney’s Shake It Up, which premiered in 2010. Afterward, she went on to star in her own Disney channel show, K.C. Undercover before becoming an Emmy-award-winning actress that stars in HBO’s Euphoria. So now, when she’s seen, at the age of 24 (she’ll be 25 later this year), playing a young woman in a relationship, predictably so, there’s been a lot of discourse on whether or not she’s too young for this role.
Yes. There is an age gap between her and 36-year-old Washington, but as he told Variety, “she is a woman.” In comparison: Julie Roberts was 22 when she starred alongside a 40-year-old Richard Gere in Pretty Woman; a film considered an American classic. It was Roberts’ breakout role, so there was little attachment to her youth. Famous critic Robert Ebert even called it “sweet and innocent” at the time. And while there is history here in how Black women are hypersexualized at young ages, in this moment, Zendaya’s sense of agency is paramount.
Levinson’s depiction of Marie was, in part, inspired by Zendaya. “I was writing the character of Marie in the way that I know Z. Confident, funny, but tough and not afraid of a fight,” Levinson said. Like Washington reminded the world, Zendaya “is a woman.” A woman who is very much in control of her own narrative, and who is showing the world another side of her and her artistry in this film. Just because the world hasn’t seen this side of her, doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Zendaya owns her story, and it’s up to her to decide what and when she shares what she shares.