Parrish Lewis/Netflix © 2023
Eddie Murphy as Akbar and Jonah Hill as Ezra in ‘You People’ Parrish Lewis/Netflix © 2023
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Jew People

Jonah Hill’s latest is a parade of mindless, self-denigrating tropes—and Hollywood Jews are angry

by
Malina Saval
February 06, 2023
Parrish Lewis/Netflix © 2023
Eddie Murphy as Akbar and Jonah Hill as Ezra in 'You People' Parrish Lewis/Netflix © 2023
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This article is part of Jews & Power: Having It, Using It, Losing It.
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You People, a “romantic comedy” that premiered on Netflix on Jan. 27 (International Holocaust Remembrance Day, as well as the day on which seven Jews were murdered by Palestinian terrorists in a synagogue in Israel), has been generating considerable blowback for its tone-deaf treatment of antisemitism. Marketed as an updated Look Who’s Coming to Dinner that revolves around an engaged couple, the Jewish Ezra Cohen (Jonah Hill) and the Black Muslim Amira Mohammed (Lauren London), who together set out to bridge cultural divides between their two families, the film is, in the eyes of many Jews, an offensive shanda.

The movie opens on a scene in which protagonist Ezra Cohen (Jonah Hill), a Jewish, Los Angeles-based stockbroker-turned-podcaster covering the Black pop-culture beat, is accosted at shul following a break in Yom Kippur services. Ezra’s childhood orthodontist asks to see his penis. Another elderly congregant asks him, “You don’t like getting pussy?” Yet another makes an adolescent joke about Ezra liking to “smoke Hebrew Nationals.”

As one high-profile Hollywood producer told me, the scene “ricochets around a particularly nasty characterization of old Jewish men, all of whom seem to be sexual deviants. It’s as if [white nationalist] Nick Fuentes directed a remake of the opening party scene in The Graduate.”

Indeed, if this opening scene had been the only questionable one in the movie, directed by Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and co-written by Barris and Hill, it might have been easier to overlook. According to a number of Hollywood Jews I spoke to, however, You People is not the feel-good, star-crossed love story it advertises itself as, but a revisionist hatchet job on the Jewish people, full of dangerous and frankly lazy tropes in which Jews are accused of everything from racism to orchestrating the North American slave trade. It is also currently the No. 1 film on Netflix.

Behind the scenes, many in the film industry are appalled. “I was horrified at what was considered acceptable,” says filmmaker Stuart Acher of You People. “It is open season on Jews.”

Following an awkward introductory exchange in which Amira’s parents, Akbar and Fatima (Eddie Murphy and Nia Long), tell Ezra’s parents, Shelley and Arnold (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny), that they are practicing Muslims—and devout followers of Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan—the conversation then devolves into one in which Jews are blamed for every trauma that has beset the Black community in America. “You kind of, sort of came here with the money you made from the slave trade,” Fatima tells Shelley, of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe. Moments later, Akbar says, “I don’t turn on the news every day and see people in yarmulkes getting shot by police.”

These lines are played for laughs, but neither Shelley nor Arnold is given a chance to refute them. Akbar and Ezra join in praise of Louis Farrakhan, but fail to mention that he refers to Jews as “termites” and considers Judaism a “Satanic religion” (offensively for Muslims, the Nation of Islam is conflated with Islam in general throughout). Instead, Ezra’s family members are all portrayed as self-obsessed caricatures of secular Jews, vocally woke but ignorant of real-life Black people. To top it off, Arnold is a third-generation podiatrist—which would imply that his ancestors in the shtetl were podiatrists, despite restrictions against Jews that forced them to be butchers, bakers, tailors and other sorts of laborers.

“The danger is the mixture between fact-based comments and absolute nonsense,” says Avner Shavit, Israeli journalist and senior film critic for Walla, who notes that You People employs a manipulative tactic in which lies about the Jewish people are sandwiched between facts. “Two of the lies that Akbar and Fatima tell are preceded by valid comments. The father says that Jews are not targeted by police violence to the same degree as Black people. One hundred percent—we all agree. The comment about slavery is not valid. Unfortunately, some Jews in the Netherlands were involved in the slave trade between the 16th and 19th centuries, but Jews were nothing more than a footnote in the history of slavery and, in any case, these are not the Jews to which Fatima refers. Arnold’s and Shelley’s parents or grandparents—they likely immigrated from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century or early 20th century. Not only were they not involved in the slave trade, they had no money, no privilege, and no wealth.” Nor do we hear that, Akbar’s own sense of the news aside, Jews remain the most targeted ethnoreligious group in the United States, or that Orthodox Jews are regularly beaten up on the streets for exactly that—wearing a yarmulke.

“The callousness with which it stereotypes and ridicules Jewish people is nauseating,” said Noa Tishby, a TV producer, author of Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth and Israel’s special envoy for combating antisemitism. “It is heartbreaking that with the current rise of both racism and antisemitism, a Jewish and a Black writer were unable to find an actual way to bridge the gap and instead are perpetuating age-old antisemitic tropes which historically have caused bloodshed.”

Others were even more pointed. The film “drives a dangerous wedge between our communities, reinforcing conspiracy theories and painting Jews in positions of supremacy—when we are the age-old underdog,” said Allison Josephs, founder of nonprofit organization Jew in the City.

You People “is a Jews don’t count fest,” said David Baddiel, English comedian and author of the bestselling book Jews Don’t Count. “The Jewish family is positioned as white, privileged, and racist. The Black family just has a stern dad. At the end there’s much Jewish apologizing for racism. None for antisemitism. That word never appears.”

That You People was co-penned by Hill, who is Jewish, has struck some observers as particularly upsetting. In one scene early in the film, Ezra is out on a date (at a Beverly Hills deli) with a large-nosed Jewish woman who comments to Ezra on how “exciting” it must be to “work with so much money all the time.” Later, Ezra presents the Tiffany engagement ring he bought for Amira to his best friend and co-podcast host, Mo (Sam Jay), for her approval. The diamond is small, and so Mo suggests Ezra make up a story to apologize for the ring’s “baby-ass” size. “I’m just gonna be like, it’s my grandma’s Holocaust ring,” shrugs Ezra. Mo’s response: “It’s not a Holocaust box. You gotta put it in a satchel and dirty it up. I think you should Holocaust it down.”

“I just read a survey that 25% of Dutch people think the Holocaust is a myth or an overblown story,” Shavit told me. “If Netflix wants to control the world, then go for it. But if this is Netflix’s vision, to be the most important platform, then it’s my responsibility to take its work seriously and to deconstruct it. And my main concern is that because Netflix is an international platform—available in Turkey, the Netherlands, Japan—not everyone will understand the film’s subtleties. The film can argue that it plays with stereotypes, but that is a very American perspective. The non-American audience understands it very differently. It’s still terrible, of course, when viewed by an American audience, but in other countries where they don’t have this American perspective, it’s even worse.”

Malina Saval is the Features Editor at Variety and the author of The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and the novel Jewish Summer Camp Mafia.