Depending on who you ask, Netflix’s new movie You People—about a young Jewish man who falls in love with a young Black woman, much to the bafflement of their misguided families—is either this generation’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a brave and honest meditation on race relations in America, or the latest salvo of anti-Jewish vitriol this side of Kyrie Irving and Kanye West. I’ve got good news: It’s neither. But it is definitely worth watching, because You People is just the major motion picture that American Jews deserve.
The action kicks off with the Viddui, the Yom Kippur confession of communal sins, liberal Angeleno Jews apparently being particularly fond of confessing wrongdoings real and imagined. But as the handsomely dressed Jews, drenched in the honeyed sunlight of the Skirball Center, are beating their chests, Ezra Cohen is futzing with his shiny blue-and-white sneakers. Not that we needed such a tell to inform us that Ezra is uncomfortable at shul: He is played by Jonah Hill, who co-wrote the movie with Kenya Barris, and who is to unease what Van Gogh was to starry nights—transforming the earthly sentiment into an almost divine state of grace. Ezra hardly has time to reach his shoelaces before his mother swoops in to chastise him for not wearing a yarmulke. I was informed by the credits that Hill’s mother was played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus; if true, she deserves an Oscar for so skillfully suppressing all of her charm and savage comedic timing (see under: Veep) and disappearing instead into some shrill mieskeit called Shelley who speaks no other language than tone-deaf virtue signaling.
She’s hardly alone: As the good LA Yidn finish praying and schmooze outdoors, we get a gallery of beloved figures—Shalom, Elliott Gould! G’shabbes, Rhea Perlman—unleashing their inner nudniks and saying crass and mildly amusing things meant to telegraph to Ezra that though they are aged, they’re still as woke as your average Vassar sophomore.
Ezra cringes, and rightfully so. It’s one of the film’s not-insignificant achievements that he is, through no fault of the fetid spiritual milieu from which he spawned, a sweet and decent guy. And soon, he runs into a sweet and decent gal, Amira Mohammed, played by the lovely Lauren London. Their meet-cute is both genuinely funny and also touching: He walks into her car, thinking she’s his Uber driver; she accuses him of being a racist who can’t tell one Black woman apart from another; he shows her a photo of said driver, who is indeed her doppelganger; and the tense and terse shorthand of systemic racism and privilege, the lingua franca of our self-appointed intellectual and moral betters, melts into air, giving way to the more sonorous and timeless notes of two human beings genuinely trying to connect.
Which, this being a rom-com, Ezra and Amira soon do, reveling in having finally found a kindred spirit after so many romantic failures to launch. And how could they not fall madly in love? Both, after all, were raised by parents who manifest their identities as performance art, full of sound and fury and signifying very little, as has become the American way.
Amira’s father, you see, is a man named Woody, though he now goes by Akbar. He wears a kufi gifted to him by Louis Farrakhan, and projects all of the depth, knowledge, and dedication to his faith of a man who’d read the first few lines of a Wikipedia entry about Islam before deciding to convert and give study and practice no more thought. He is allegedly played by the great Eddie Murphy, though good luck finding hints of Axel Foley or Prince Akeem anywhere in the wooden and unfunny Akbar.
The two families meet. Hilarity ensues. Shelley launches into diatribes about police brutality, which she refers to as a “hot topic”; Akbar accuses the Jews of benefiting from the slave trade. We take neither seriously, because neither show anything near real human engagement with the beliefs they so facilely spew.
If you’re wondering why 40% of American Jews aged 18 to 29 identify as ‘Jews of no religion,’ it’s because they were raised by Shelleys who prattled on about how important it was to be Jewish while making no effort to practice the faith in any meaningful way.
Which is precisely what makes You People, if not a pleasure or a comedic triumph, then at least two hours worth spending. If you’re wondering why 40% of American Jews aged 18 to 29 identify as “Jews of no religion,” it’s because they were raised by Shelleys who prattled on about how important it was to be Jewish while making no effort to learn anything substantive or practice the faith in any meaningful way, instead having replaced progressive pieties for any actual Jewish ones.
“Ezra, you’re my baby boy,” Shelley sobs when her son breaks the news of his engagement to Amira, “and you found an amazing woman who makes you happy. End of story.” Long, perfect pause, and then: “I mean, would it be nice if she were Jewish? Sure, our people’s numbers are dwindling, and it would make your life easier, but this is great, too!” Big smile, speech concludes: “Our family is growing in such a cool and hip and funky way, you know? Oh my God! I’m going to have Black grandbabies! We’re a family of color! We’re the future now!”
It’s meant as comedy, but so many of us have had some variation of this conversation in real life—the inchoate commitment to Jewish particularism clashing with the gospel of cosmopolitan universalism and radical acceptance, with predictable results—that Netflix might as well promote You People as a documentary.
And the film hardly spares its Black protagonists the same treatment. The film’s funniest scene, by far, is the one that pairs Murphy with Mike Epps, the only person on screen who seems to be having any fun. He plays Uncle EJ, Akbar’s brother, and he pops by wearing the sort of Versace jacket that even Elton John would’ve turned down for being a tad too loud. Their conversation is a gorgeous and subtle set piece, each accusing the other of being a complete fraud and leaving us to wonder which is worse, putting on a fake designer jacket or putting on a fake ideological conviction. Whichever offends you more, the bottom line remains the same: When being Black is about little more than reciting fashionably idiotic and Twitter-ready creeds, don’t be surprised if your children run for the Hollywood Hills.
And the children, baruch HaShem, are alright. When Amira tells Ezra she’d like to have her imam officiate their wedding, the young Mr. Cohen is confused. “Your imam?” he asks quizzically, “OK, Miss Shakur, when did you get so Muslim?” Amira is unamused. “I’ve been Muslim, I was born Muslim, and it’s important to my dad so I think we should go with it,” she replies. “Was that Muslim bacon you ate yesterday for breakfast?” Ezra asks, to which Amira, without missing a beat, responds, “It was Jewish bacon.” People, if you can’t see what’s not just genius but entirely accurate about this exchange, I have a Pew study for you to read. That’s decades of reducing complex commitments—to religion and tradition and peoplehood—coming home to roost.
In fact, so insipid are the film’s deracinated Jews that even the best among them can’t handle its one genuinely troubling moment, a discussion of the aforementioned rabidly antisemitic leader of the Nation of Islam. When Akbar praises Farrakhan, Shelley mildly registers her discomfort, while Ezra, eager to curry favor with his future father-in-law, praises the vilest of antisemites as the GOAT, or greatest of all time. When pressed to explain why he likes Farrakhan, Ezra, of course, can think of no good reason, and it’s of very little consolation that Akbar can’t either.
Is that terrible? Is it horrendous that in You People a vile antisemite not only gets a pass, but is defended and excused by Jews themselves? It is! And if you think it’s bad that it’s happening on film, man do I have news for you about contemporary reality. IRL, generations of historically illiterate Jews possess neither the education nor the pride to know what to respond when someone lobs ludicrous conspiratorial canards their way. That, and not Jonah Hill, makes me rage.
Will Ezra and Amira remain as clueless and cringe-inducing as their parents? Will they repeat the sins of their mothers and fathers and raise their future babies, as they themselves have been raised, to treat their heritage like Ikea furniture, something to assemble hastily, use casually, and discard at the first opportunity? Or will they make sure that their home is one where being Black and Jewish is a lived and meaningful experience rather than mere lip service? By the time the newlyweds dance the hora, these are the only questions that linger, because Amira and Ezra’s future is very much our own, and because if we’re not cautious, the sequel may be ugly. The spirit of James Baldwin, presciently name-checked early in the film, is strongly felt as the credits roll: You People is a sign. No more comedy; the tragic fire next time.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.