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'Malcolm & Marie' isn't a romance movie. It's a war movie set in the middle of a relationship.

Zendaya, John David Washington and Sam Levinson invite us into a pairing burdened by the baggage of two very flawed people who also happen to be Black.
Image: Zendaya, John David Washington
Zendaya, as Marie, and John David Washington, as Malcom, in Malcolm & Marie.Netflix

"Malcolm & Marie" comes with a warning label: Despite the glittering, black and white cinematography and the brilliance of both John David Washington as Malcolm and Zendaya as Marie, it tells viewers upfront that they're not watching a romance film.

Instead of witnessing two characters meeting cute, falling for one another, encountering conflict, and making a decision about their relationship, "Euphoria" creator Sam Levinson cracks open a window into a long-term relationship, one burdened with the weight of time and the baggage of two very flawed people who happen to also be Black.

At last, films with romantic relationships featuring Black leads have moved beyond the standard tropes.

Often, mainstream romantic dramas and comedies stick to superficial climactic moments to heighten drama, like a simple miscommunication. But seeing Black relationships play out on-screen has always been a bit more complicated. In one of the first Black romance films, 1964's "Nothing but a Man," Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln star as a rail worker and a Southern school teacher from different worlds who fall in love. However, as Dixon's Duff deals with the horror of racism, he brings his anguish home, taking it out on Lincoln's Josie as she works tirelessly to get him to accept her love.

Now, the electricity and searing vulnerability between the leads in "Malcolm & Marie" proves Black romance can be ever-evolving.

This formula set a precedent for Black women on-screen in noncomedic romance films, particularly in films like "Jason's Lyric" or even "Love & Basketball," where Black women had to carry the burden of the relationship — or sacrifice to have one.

There has been somewhat of a shift in Black romance films in more recent years.

In Ava DuVernay's 2012 film "Middle of Nowhere," Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) chooses her happiness over her incarcerated husband Derek (Omari Hardwick). In 2019's "Queen & Slim," the protagonists must trust each other and work together as a team to evade police detection — falling in love in the process. With Rashaad Ernesto Green's 2020 film "Premature," 17-year old Ayanna (Zora Howard) has a sexual awakening the summer before her first year of college. In the end, she chooses to chase her dreams despite the fact that falling in love for the first time has altered her world forever. And in Stella Meghie's "The Photograph," Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) doesn't ask Mae (Issa Rae) to be anything more than who she is.

Now, the electricity and searing vulnerability between the leads in "Malcolm & Marie" proves Black romance can be ever-evolving.

Malcolm is a first-time feature filmmaker riding a wave of excitement when he arrives home from his successful movie premiere, but his statuesque girlfriend, Marie, has instead an air of indifference about her. Eagerly anticipating — and equally dreading — the forthcoming reviews of his movie, Malcolm initially ignores or doesn't realize that Marie is feeling melancholy. But eventually fed up with her mood, he presses to uncover the source of her irritation.

Perhaps this movie is a signal that Hollywood is willing to see Black and brown faces in narratives that don't necessarily need to be forced into traditional genres.

What happens next is a war set on a stunning battlefield, fueled by five years of ammunition that only comes from knowing someone intimately for a large chunk of time. The two launch firebombs of insults at one another, ripping open past wounds in a shocking display of vulnerability and anguish. With the vocals of James Brown and Dionne Warwick in the background, Malcolm and Marie burrow down into each other's psyches, pressing down on one another's respective triggers and indulging in the chaos that results, in scenes that will feel achingly familiar to anyone who's suffered through similar fights in their romantic lives.

Their 106-minute showdown is as shocking as it is mesmerizing.

While romantic dramas (and comedies) are as old as cinema itself, films centering Black intimacy in such a raw way remain distinctive because they are so few and far between. Classics like 1954’s "Carmen Jones," 1999's "The Best Man" or more recent films like "The Photograph" and "Moonlight" have reeled in Black audiences over the years, because seeing Black tenderness and sensuality captured in a truly real way on-screen is still such a rarity.

Levinson is a white writer/director, so "Malcolm & Marie" doesn't quite fit into what would typically be called a Black romantic drama. But perhaps this movie is a signal that Hollywood is willing to see Black and brown faces in narratives that don't necessarily need to be forced into traditional genres. And, though Levinson's dialogue is at times heavily weighted with film jargon and theory given the characters and setting, he also doesn't shy away from portraying his characters' Black experiences, particularly in the very white space that is Hollywood and filmmaking. In doing so, he makes sure Malcolm and Marie are fully realized, imperfect human beings, making them perfect characters instead of the one-dimensional silhouettes that Black people have been subjected to across time.

This is what Black audiences have been asking for generations, and perhaps Hollywood is finally paying attention.

CORRECTION (Feb. 7, 2021, 1:00pm ET): A previous article version of this misspelled the name of one of the stars of "Malcolm & Marie" in the secondary headline. She is Zendaya, not Zandaya.