Over the past few years, there has been a flurry of thought-provoking and morally shattering films devoted to what are often referred to as “black-Jewish relationships.” These films explore complex issues such as how light-skinned Jews in the United States have, intentionally or not, become “white.” These films reveal how minorities display masculinity in a society that degrades and cripples them. By juxtaposing white Jews and black non-Jews, these films raise all sorts of difficult questions about their respective places in American society.
The recently released Netflix movie You People is unfortunately not one of those movies. Like the rumored CGI-generated kiss between his star-crossed lovers (Jonah Hill and Lauren London) that was allegedly a real kiss, a lot of what happens in the world of the story seems somehow not entirely believable .
It’s hard to tell a story about black-Jewish relations when the Jews have no idea who they are.
That’s not to say the film’s stellar comedy ensemble doesn’t manage to deliver some very funny moments. There’s something fascinating about a Jewish character in You People who wonders how to make his recently purchased, modestly priced engagement ring look like the Holocaust, so as to make it more emotionally appealing to his beloved. Likewise, unleashing a comic titan like Eddie Murphy to opine on changing trends in fine natural hair will usually end well (and outrageously).
But unlike films about black-Jewish relations like Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman or the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, You People lacks the courage of its convictions. He offers a digression from his most troubling—and interesting—observation about America’s racial divide. Along the way he bashes white Jewish liberals, seemingly unknowingly.
In You People, Moe (played by scene-stealer Sam Jay) is a podcaster with a knack for mixing wisdom and vulgarity. She explains to her white Jewish friend/podcast partner Ezra Cohen (Jonah Hill) the sad truth about romance in a non-post-racial age.
Such wise counsel is necessary because 35-year-old, bacon-eating Ezra is in love with Amira (Lauren London). A bacon eater herself, Amira is a black, Muslim costume designer who is initially charmed by Ezra’s declaration that no one should be “put in a box.”
Ezra means that we are all individuals. We are not simply reflexes of or reducible to the sociological categories we represent. But Moe, sensing that sociology (and history) is an untamed, thirsty beast, explains to Ezra how closed we really are:
Dude, black and white people will never be cool. Period.. . . . It’s kind of like when you cheat on a woman, right? When you cheat on a woman It’s like you try to move on but you never can. Why? Because she keeps asking questions. . . . To black people in this country, white dudes are the crooks. And we’re the chick who can’t move on.. . .We cannot forget what you all did and what you are still doing.
Mo’s conviction is disturbing. But one of the main tasks of art is to bring awareness to these unpleasant, unhappy and unpopular possibilities. In the darkness of a movie theater or comedy club, or through the serenity of a written page, artists coax and persuade us to run our fingers along the jagged edges of these ideas.
The premise that “blacks and whites will never be cool” is disturbing. It’s also worth researching because I guess it speaks to a truth shared by some or many black people in this country.
One of the main tasks of art is to bring awareness to these unpleasant, unhappy and unpopular possibilities.
This trend of airing disturbing truths is particularly prevalent in other Black and Jewish films from this era.
To Spike Lee “BlackKKKlansman” features a white Jewish cop (Adam Driver) with no interest in his Judaism. Luckily, Detective Flip Zimmerman’s erasure of his Jewish identity doesn’t stop him from doing his job; he helps his black colleague infiltrate and break up the local clan. Still, Lee issued a not-so-friendly warning: Jews are turning to whiteness. In the process, they endanger themselves (and their black allies).
True to this narrative, Detective Zimmerman disappears from the narrative. No goodbye. No closure or sense of where he and his Judaism are going. The story ends with Flip’s black partner, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), looking at a massive cross burned outside his window. His fellow Jew is nowhere to be found.
“Gems in the Rough” had his unpleasant truth to share. It focuses on the infidelity, gambling, raging jealousy, and relentless but somehow endearing moral turpitude of jeweler Howard Ratner (played by Adam Sandler). The camera lingers relentlessly on Ratner’s distraught face before and after it has been altered by Jew-on-Jew violence. In doing so, he illuminated Jewish male dysfunction—a dysfunction that resembled media and Hollywood stereotypes of black male dysfunction.
“Uncut Gems” (in which Ratner reminds assistant Kevin Garnett, “The first two point guards in the NBA were Jewish”) suggests that when confused, blacks and Jews can be similarly confused. The film’s heroism was to force viewers to confront the pathologies of the latter rather than the former.
Both works lay out their troubling convictions, cling to them, cling to us, and make us bleed. This courage is lacking in “You People”. This shook Moe’s claim of irreparable black-white alienation. Then he runs from this bold insight, fast.
Mo’s prophecy comes true when a pre-wedding event goes awry. As night falls, Ezra takes a crack at his future father-in-law Akbar (Eddie Murphy) for being so unwelcoming. “Never, never will sometime I know what it’s like to be black in this country,” Ezra scolds Akbar, “But I know what an ass is.” Amira scolds her future mother-in-law Shelly (Julia-Louis Dreyfuss) for treating her like some exotic black woman subject of art upon which to lavishly praise and rehearse her canned liberal pieties.
As bleak as it all is, the ethno-racial breakdown of the rehearsal dinner makes sense. This is sociology talking (and freaking out)! If “You People” really respected Moe’s insight into the black-white divide, it would have ended right there, the credits rolled to the accompaniment of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon.”
But five minutes later, Shelley and Akbar turned the tide. The future in-laws conspire to reunite the estranged couple. Hollywood edge erupts; imam, rabbi, wedding, etc. “You People” inexplicably runs away from its most interesting idea.
Shelley’s motivation for linking arms with Akbar is puzzling—as is everything about the depiction of the Jews in You People. Although the film abandons its convictions about blacks’ reluctance to forgive whites, it seems to have no consistent convictions about Jews at all. The Jews in this tale aren’t even caricatures, they’re blanks. They’re not boxes, they’re deconstructed cardboard on its way to recycling. This is what unbalances and dooms the film.
Moe’s apt nickname for Ezra is “Jew with nothing to do.” And so it is with every member of the tribe on screen. Ezra’s father, an orthopedist (played by David Duchovny, looking sleepy and/or tired), conceptualizes Black America through MTV’s Pimp My Ride. Shelly is an over-sharing “ally” whose efforts to bond with Amira are so over-the-top that they feel like TikTok videos. Hipster Ezra loves (black) culture. When questioned, however, he doesn’t seem to know that much about it other than what he’s gleaned from listening to hip-hop.
It is difficult to tell a story about black-Jewish relations, when Jews have no idea who they are. The white Jews of “You People” appear as hypocritical liberals who superficially consume black culture and – note this – have one of them. This image would upset me if I believed the filmmakers actually thought any of this through. Hatred of assimilated Jews is an ancient genre of Jew-on-Jew violence, a Mosaic martial art. If this was supposed to be an embarrassing belief of “You”, so be it. But I doubt it.
It wasn’t until Ezra declared that he was a “chameleon” that I sensed that someone in the writer’s room might have given Judaism a thought. The premises were immediately abandoned. But the trope of the shape-shifting Jew is a thing (and something that non-Jewish black people – and anti-Semites elsewhere – have often observed).
This unique superpower that must be fused is perhaps most masterfully explored in cinema by Woody Allen in his 1983 spoof documentary Zelig. In a famous scene, Leonard Zelig, whose identity is constantly morphing into that of a human, who he stands next to gets involved in a Nazi rally. He sits on stage in full fascist garb behind the foamed-up Führer himself (the controversial sequence used real archival footage). Talk about an embarrassing verdict!
As my colleague Professor Terence L. Johnson and I point out in our book, Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue, this strained relationship can be and has been explored through fiction, poetry, film, music, and more. . Comedians, too, from SNL to Curb Your Enthusiasm, have chimed in thoughtfully (and sometimes not).
Comedy is particularly good at allowing us to process disturbing truths. After all, we’re laughing. Disarmed. Vulnerable to new ideas. Primed for cutting. You people make us smile sometimes. But he lacked the courage to draw blood and teach us something interesting about blacks and/or Jews.