Jonah HIll (left) as Ezra and Lauren London as Amira in "You People." (Photo/Parrish Lewis-Netflix)
Jonah HIll (left) as Ezra and Lauren London as Amira in "You People." (Photo/Parrish Lewis-Netflix)

‘You People’ is an unfunny step back for Black-Jewish relations

The past year has been a challenging one for Black-Jewish relations. From Whoopi Goldberg (who said “the Holocaust isn’t about race” last February on “The View”) to Ye (“I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE,” “I see good things about Hitler,” etc.) to Kyrie Irving (who boosted an antisemitic film, “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” on social media) and Irving’s radical Hebrew Israelite supporters in Brooklyn (who chanted, “We are the real Jews”), to the racist ways some white Jews responded to these incidents, the historically fraught relationship between the two groups was seriously tested in 2022.

During these times of strife, one wishes for a transcendent work of art, a film perhaps, that can help break down the walls of fear and resentment between our peoples, push back against stereotypes and foster healing.

“You People” is not that film.

The new Netflix rom-com, written by Jonah Hill (who is Jewish) and Kenya Barris (who is Black) and directed by Barris (creator of the ABC sitcom “black-ish”), puts a modern spin on the 1967 classic “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” by making the couple at the center of the story not just an interracial one but an interfaith one, too. And for some extra drama, Hill and Barris decided the couple, Ezra and Amira, should belong to religions — Judaism and the Nation of Islam, respectively — that are essentially incompatible. (The NOI’s ideology holds that “Judaism is nothing more than a ‘deceptive lie’ and a ‘theological error’ promoted by Jews to further their control over politics and the economy,” according to the ADL.)

Over the course of a bloated two hours, the film broaches a number of racial and religious taboos in ways that are often more awkward than funny. The face of Judaism that is presented is a reductive one — white, wealthy and basically secular. An entire scene is built around a song by Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who, you may have heard, had an antisemitic meltdown last year; the filmmakers’ decision to remove the song from a trailer but keep it in the film after everything Ye has said about Jews feels like a provocation. And the film’s ending is deeply unsatisfying.

But let’s back up: Ezra (Hill) grew up in an affluent white, Jewish family in the upscale Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles and works as a stock broker, but his real passion is podcasting about hip-hop culture with his best friend, Mo (Sam Jay). Amira (Lauren London) is a costume designer who was raised in a less-affluent part of L.A. by followers of Louis Farrakahn, the antisemitic leader of the NOI. After a chance run-in outside of Ezra’s office, the two start an unlikely romance that takes place mostly off screen, so it’s not entirely clear what they see in each other.

Enter their parents: Akbar (Eddie Murphy) and Fatima (Nia Long) are suspicious of their daughter’s white, socially inept boyfriend, while Arnold (David Duchovny) and Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) immediately embrace Amira but fetishize her race. “Oh my God, I’m gonna have Black grandbabies,” Shelley tells Ezra after he announces that he’s going to propose to Amira. “We’re a family of color! We are the future now!”

Things go about as well as you might expect at a dinner that Ezra and Amira host with both sets of parents. Akbar speaks in reverential tones about Farrakhan, then Fatima repeats an antisemitic conspiracy theory — one pushed by Farrakhan and the NOI — that Jews got rich off of the slave trade, which gave them a leg up in American society. Arnold protests meekly, saying, “I would like to see your sources on that.”

Ezra and Amira’s future together seems doomed for so many reasons. And at one point, they actually do break up. (I’ll admit that I cheered at this moment because it made perfect sense.)

But where there’s a rom-com, there’s a way to the altar.

“You People” contains some genuinely amusing and unexpected moments, as when Arnold (who is inexplicably obsessed with the real-life rapper and TV host Xzibit) sits down at the piano and serenades Amira with a slightly off-key version of John Legend’s ballad “Ordinary People.”

But by reinforcing the idea that Jews and Black people belong to completely separate worlds — an idea that erases Black Jews such as Lauren London, the actress who plays Amira — the film is ultimately another step back for our communities.

“You People” (1 hour, 57 minutes, rated R) is streaming on Netflix.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.