Having become unfortunately accustomed to the majority of non-Orthodox Jews neglecting their heritage, the trailer to the Netflix film You People, directed by Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and co-written by Barris and Jonah Hill, seemed promising as a romantic comedy between a Jewish man and his Black girlfriend, with hip-hop music playing in the background.
I initially did not think it was worth the space in this newspaper to address this film, but as it shot up to the top of the viewership chart and is being discussed in mainstream publications, it deserves a thorough review, highlighting its falsehoods and distortions.
Films and comedy acts about intermarriage are as old as the entertainment industry, as are self-deprecating Jewish comedians, and even Holocaust jokes. The Soup Nazi character in the Seinfeld sitcom seemed harmless at the time, and it became a widely used slang term; but in this Netflix film, punchlines relating to the biggest genocide attempt in history are taking place at a time when there are fewer survivors, more hate incidents, and widespread denial of the Holocaust.
“While Ezra and Amira are seemingly normal characters, most of the people around them feel more like caricatures and hyper-problematic stereotypes than actual people,” wrote Ineye Komonibo, a culture critic at the site Refinery29. “Even with a whole Eddie Murphy and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the ensemble cast, the comedy aspect of this romcom isn’t particularly hilarious either.”
Among Jewish critics, the movie’s downhill descent starts with its opening scene. Protagonist Ezra Cohen is uncomfortable at the Yom Kippur services, telling his grandmother that he wishes to be cremated, while his mother, played by Louis-Dreyfus, criticizes his excessive tattoos. After the service ends, his childhood orthodontist makes obscene remarks to him, while his mother tries to set him up with Kim Glassman, describing her as “the whole nine yards.”
At their date, she appears shallow, interested more in his well-paying but uninspiring finance job rather than his podcast show about Black culture. Playing up stereotypies, she makes a nasal laugh reminiscent of Fran Drescher. Seeking someone authentic, he instantly falls in love with Amira, whose father is a follower of Louis Farrakhan. The power dynamic in the film is palpable, with the Cohens apologizing and well-meaning attempts to empathize. In contrast, Amira’s parents toss barbs at them.
“You kind of, sort of, came here with the money you made from the slave trade,” Amira’s mother notes. This line is a common example of Black anti-Semitism, entirely inaccurate, as most American Jews during the Civil War lived in the northern states, and the majority of American Jews today are the descendants of immigrants who arrived here after slavery ended.
“I don’t turn on the news every day and see people in yarmulkes getting shot by police,” her father adds.
On both counts, Ezra’s parents offer no rebuttals. Nor is there any criticism of Farrakhan and of anti-Semitism perpetrated against Jews, which is increasingly coming from minority individuals.
“The Jewish family is positioned as white, privileged, and racist. The Black family just has a stern dad,” writes David Baddiel, author of the book Jews Don’t Count. “At the end, there’s much Jewish apologizing for racism. None for anti-Semitism. That word never appears.”
How much blame can be assigned to the film’s co-producer, who wasn’t raised in an observant household? In his Oscar-nominated role in the 2013 film Wolf of Wall Street, he spoke of the harm caused by stereotypes.
“Being someone who’s Jewish and playing someone who’s Jewish in such an unflattering way, I’ve definitely thought about how the things that are beautiful about Judaism are not the things portrayed by these guys,” Hill said in a 2014 interview with Jewish Journal. “They’re actually the things that hurt Judaism, because these characters are all about greed and money, and there’s that old stereotype that all Jews care about is money.”
Having said that, he could have done a better job in depicting an intermarriage and relations between Blacks and Jews. In a society that is hyper-sensitive to avoid fat-shaming, homophobia, transphobia, and racial tensions, his responsibility as a Jew is to educate the public that anti-Semitism is also unacceptable.
With a century of films to look back on, there are admirable examples where Jewish characters confront anti-Semitism and rise to the occasion by speaking up, refuting the lies, and exploring their heritage. You People does none of these. It is as damaging to public perceptions of Jews in general as last year’s Netflix serial My Orthodox Life did to religious Jews.
By Sergey Kadinsky