Rachel Sennott (left) and Madeline Grey DeFreece in "Tahara," one of several movies you could watch instead of "You People."
Rachel Sennott (left) and Madeline Grey DeFreece in "Tahara," one of several movies you could watch instead of "You People."

Seven movies about Black-Jewish relations to watch instead of ‘You People’

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The Netflix romantic comedy “You People” — which tells the story of the fraught relationship between a white Jewish man, his Black Muslim partner and their cringe-inducing families — has stirred up no shortage of controversy over its depiction of Jews, race and “Black-Jewish relations.”

With critiques over the film’s depictions of Jews as white, the pro-Farrakhan views of some of its Black characters and its lack of representation for Black Jews, “You People” has sparked a wave of heated responses in Jewish publications across the country, including this one.

As colleagues at the S.F.-based Jewish Film Institute, which champions bold films and filmmakers that expand and evolve the Jewish story, we want to take this opportunity to reframe the conversation and learn from the many examples of thoughtful representation of Black-Jewish issues that already exist on screen.

From narrative films that center Black American and Ethiopian Jews, to documentaries that trace the history of Black-Jewish collaboration and contextualize our varied experiences with race in America, there are a number of movies that handle these issues with care.

The term “Black-Jewish relations” has come up repeatedly in discussions of “You People.” It’s a complicated term that collapses the varied relationships between our communities into a catch-all buzzword. We put together this list of mostly recent JFI favorites that help illuminate our complex shared histories, highlight experiences of Black Jews and reveal the surprising places where our communities meet.

“The Levys of Monticello”

This 2022 documentary from Steven Pressman of San Francisco tells the story of a Sephardic Jewish family that bought Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, saving it from ruin on two different occasions. In the decades that follow the Levy family face the stains of antisemitism and, along with Monticello itself, are forced to confront the former plantation’s bitter legacy of slavery and racism.

Screens at JFI’s WinterFest at 2:10 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26 at the Vogue Theatre, S.F.. Followed by a panel with director Steven Pressman, professor Marc Dollinger and professor Margalynne Armstrong, moderated by Rebecca Pierce. Get tickets

“Tahara”

In Olivia Peace’s drama from 2020, two best friends attend the funeral of a Hebrew school classmate who died by suicide. In the process, they accidentally damage their friendship beyond repair. While JFI has yet to screen this film, which never directly mentions race, we believe it presents an important form of representation for Black Jews, with a Black Jewish main protagonist whose presence in her Hebrew school is presented as a natural part of Jewish life.

Now streaming on Starz and Amazon Prime.

“Fig Tree”

In Ethiopian Israeli director Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian’s 2018 drama, 16-year-old Mina and her Ethiopian Jewish family prepare to flee their home country’s civil war for Israel, where Mina’s mother awaits their reunion. But this plan leaves out the person Mina loves most: Eli, her Christian boyfriend, who lives in the woods to evade being drafted. Mina hatches a scheme to save Eli, but everyone and everything seems set against her. In Amharic and Hebrew with English subtitles.

Screened at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 2019. Now streaming on Amazon Prime.

“Strange Fruit”

Director Joel Katz’s 2002 film is the first documentary exploring the history and legacy of the classic Billie Holiday song, which began as a poem by a Jewish school teacher and union activist from the Bronx who later set it to music. The film examines the history of lynching, and the interplay of race, labor and the left, and popular culture as forces that would give rise to the Civil Rights Movement.

Screened at SFJFF in 2002. Now streaming on Kanopy; free subscription available with many library cards.

“Levinsky Park”

Director Beth Toni Kruvant’s 2016 documentary shows how tens of thousands of refugees fleeing violence and oppression in sub-Saharan Africa sought relief and safety in Israel only to find a society bitterly divided on how to treat them. The English-language film uncovers the personal stories of Tel Aviv residents and African asylum seekers, examining how unrest exacerbates community tensions and using intimate stories to disclose reactions to the stranger.

Screened at SFJFF in 2017. Now streaming on Amazon Prime.

“Anne”

In Desirée Abeyta’s 10-minute dramatic short from 2021, two actresses, one Black and one white, audition to play Anne Frank, prompting the controversial question: Who is best suited for the role?

Screened at SFJFF in 2022. Will screen virtually in the Sacramento Jewish Film Festival, starting March 1.

“They Ain’t Ready for Me”

This 2020 documentary by Brad Rothschild follows Tamar Manasseh, an African American woman who was then a rabbinical student and is now a rabbi, as she leads the fight against senseless killings on the south side of Chicago. Both authentically Jewish and authentically Black, she brings an understanding of both communities, even as she struggles for acceptance in the Jewish world.

Screened by JFI in 2020. Now streaming on Kanopy.

Rebecca Pierce
Rebecca Pierce

Rebecca Pierce, Marketing and Communications Manager at the Jewish Film Institute, is a filmmaker and writer based in San Francisco.

Lexi Leban
Lexi Leban

Lexi Leban, Executive Director of the Jewish Film Institute, is a producer and director based in Oakland.