For those who somehow missed any of the advertisements, Netflix has released a new film titled You People starring Jonah Hill, Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Lauren London. The film, the directorial debut from Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, was written by Barris and Jonah Hill and follows the culture clash between a white Jewish family and a Black Muslim family when their children get engaged. Naturally, our ears perk up whenever we’re addressed in a new film, but the response by much of the Jewish community has been troubling for me. Calls of antisemitism I find not only to be overreactions but are misunderstandings of the film altogether. This is not meant to be a sanitized movie about a perfect white Jewish family and a perfect Black Muslim family shaking hands, respecting each other’s differences, and getting along together splendidly. This is a movie where characters have flaws, and those flaws lead to conflicts that are multiplied by a culture clash.
Let’s analyze how the four major characters are introduced.
We first see Jonah Hill’s Ezra Cohen co-hosting a podcast on Black culture (which he refers to just as “the culture”) with his best friend Mo (Sam Jay), a Black woman. His role in the podcast, from what we’re shown, is to be the funny sidekick to Mo’s more direct approach. After this brief scene-setter, the movie starts proper at a Yom Kippur service. After an establishing shot of everyone beating their chest in atonement, the camera tracks the dress shoes of its male congregants, passing by anonymous loafers and a pair of bright white and blue Nikes. The camera doubles back and stops on the Nikes, which are now being wiped clean of dirt by their owner. One of these things is not like the other. The camera pulls up, and we see the shoes belong to Ezra, who is more concerned with cleaning his leather shoes than atoning for his sins. Both his mouth and his siddur are closed. He wears no suit jacket, no yarmulke, no tallis, and the sleeves of his white shirt are rolled up to show off his tattoos. When the rabbi asks them to sit, he immediately complains about how long they are standing. What have we learned about Ezra? We know that Judaism is not an important part of his life, but he still feels obligated to attend services.
Once they sit, his mother, Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), calls him out on his appearance. But before she launches into her disapproval of the “illustrations and graffiti all over [his] body,” she prefaces it by saying she’s cool and hip and youthful. She criticizes his breaks from tradition but defends herself as being in the know as if she doesn’t disapprove, but the culture at large does, and the culture must be respected. In this brief interaction, what have we learned about Shelley? She wants to give the appearance of being progressive and open-minded while not actually doing anything to prove that she’s either. She detaches herself from her own beliefs.
Pretty soon, we meet Amira Mohammad (Lauren London) breaking up with her boyfriend. When he wants an explanation, she tells him, “You don’t know how to keep it real. You just say whatever you think I want to hear, and it feels fake.” When he throws a James Baldwin quote at her, she takes his phone and pulls up a text from her father telling him to do so. We know that Amira doesn’t like people who are not genuine, and she has a good meter as to when people are and are not trying to appease her.
After agreeing to go on a date with Ezra, she meets with her father, Akbar (Eddie Murphy), at a smoothie shop. He walks in wearing a “FRED HAMPTON WAS MURDERED” sweatshirt, complaining that too many light-skinned people are at the restaurant. When the date is brought up in conversation, his first question is to ask if the man in question is Muslim. She lies and says he’s an African Muslim man, but he’s disappointed when she says he’s a Sunni Muslim and not a member of the Nation of Islam sect of the religion. What does this teach us about Akbar? He’s a proud Black Muslim who believes anyone interested in his culture is encroachment. It also teaches us something important about Amira. She’s willing to lie and smile politely and go back on her own beliefs if it means keeping the peace.
So to recap, we have a white man obsessed with Black culture with a mother who’s eager to please, dating a Black woman who respects honesty but will be dishonest to please her father who’s eager to be offended. Why are we acting surprised when they don’t get along?
Much of the ire is directed at the dinner scene where the parents of each family first meet, particularly a moment where Akbar mentions how we once met Louis Farrakhan. The Mohammads, members of the Nation of Islam, view the founder of their religion with awe and are probably more familiar with Farakkhan’s Civil Rights leader past than his more antisemitic present. The Cohens, Jews, understandably feel a little differently about Farrakhan. Before Shelley can go into a full retort of Akbar’s admiration, Ezra suggests they go into the other room and start the meal. People are upset that more criticism isn’t levied into Farrakhan’s recent comments, but it’s in line with what’s been established about the characters. Ezra and Amira don’t want to cause a scene, so they end the conversation as quickly as they can. Would it be nice to feature a nuanced discussion acknowledging Farrakhan’s historical importance while holding him against his antisemitic comments? Sure. But would such a discussion make sense in the reality of the movie?
When we get into such hypotheticals, we judge the movie against what we would do in the situation instead of what the characters would do in the situation. Getting mad that the Cohens’ tone-deafness or the Mohammads’ guarded sensitivity is like getting mad at the white family in Get Out for being Democrats. That’s the point they’re trying to make. Nearly all of the criticism I’ve read on the film’s supposedly antisemitic content fails to take that into regard. And it’s a shame because I found much of the movie to be genuinely funny. The film is not without its problems (particularly in its approach to class and wealth), but it’s still a good time that I heartily recommend. What concerns me most about the backlash is what it could lead to. When we are hyper-critical and scathing about any time we are slightly critiqued in media, we are in danger of erasing ourselves from movies and TV shows entirely. If this is our response to a film with at-most-mild criticism of Jewish American culture, then our response towards something actually harmful and antisemitic will be dismissed as us being yet again too fragile to handle any kind of representation.