'You People:' Hate to say I told you so
The movie is just as bad for the Jews as the trailer made it seem.
About three weeks ago, I wrote about the trailer for the Netflix film “You People,” starring Jonah Hill and Lauren London, and featuring big names like Eddie Murphy and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The movie is a romantic comedy about Ezra, a Jewish man, who falls in love with Amira, a black, Muslim woman, but is also making a political statement through the hijinks that ensue when the families meet.
The trailer did not leave me very optimistic.
From the trailer…it seems that Murphy is playing a familiar tough dad character, as well as a black man who is skeptical about white people, and his jokes are at Hill’s expense…It’s Hill’s parents who we are supposed to laugh at, not with. The joke seems to be that they’re clueless, privileged “white Jews” - a concept that, at the very least, displays historic ignorance and at worst, hostility…
There is no problem with Jewish characters being flawed. Perfect characters are boring. But if all the laughs are at the Jewish family’s expense, then they’ll get tired, fast.
As I wrote in the same post, I tried to watch with an open mind. After all, the cast is excellent and great humor can often be mined from controversial topics and tense situations.
Unfortunately, my impression from the trailer turned out to be exactly right.
Here are some takes about the movie from writers that beat me to the punch:
Its portrayal of Jews feels incredibly stale…It peddles in so many Jewish stereotype — Ezra works in finance, his mom nags and nags, his bubbe kvetches about his tattoos, his Jewish dad is out of touch, the Jewish women he dates “just don’t get him” — it also deals in some serious misinformation about Jewish people and history…
In what is definitely the most cringe-worthy scene in the movie, Ezra and Amira get their families together for dinner for the first time…Eddie Murphy’s Akbar saying that the small percentage of Jews “seems to be doing pretty well right now.” The Cohens explain that it’s something they worked hard for after coming to America on a boat with nothing, just like everyone else. Amira’s mother responds, “Actually you kind of, sort of, came here with the money that you made on the slave trade like everyone else.”
The fact that she believes this could feel true to character — this particular branch of misinformation actually was popularized by a 1991 book published by the Nation of Islam. But the idea that Jews had any kind of central part in the slave trade is just plain false. Yes, there were Jewish slave-traders, but that’s not how the majority of Jews came to wealth or came to this country. Yet the movie does nothing to imply how wrong the comment is.
If anything, the Jews come across so badly — prurient, fetishistic, gauche, with no actual history or beliefs beyond wealth — that it’s easy to believe that the slave trade conspiracy is true and they simply don’t want to contend with the sordid origins of their wealth. And if viewers aren’t already familiar with Farrakhan’s open antisemitism, or the fact that the Nation of Islam is a designated hate group, it’s easy to brush off Shelley’s concerns as a white woman unable to acknowledge her privilege. Especially since Ezra says Farrakhan “tells it like it’s gotta be told.”
Allison Josephs, who advises film and TV productions on their portrayals of Jews:
[Akbar] notes that a man walking around in a yarmulke, minding his business, doesn’t have to worry about getting shot by a cop. And that’s true. But a man walking around in a yarmulke DOES have to worry about potentially getting assaulted…Jews are currently the most attacked religious minority and most attacked (per capita) racial minority, as well. The majority of Jewish attackers are Black men. Ezra’s parents mention none of this…
Amira doesn’t get a job due to racism. In this movie, only Black people and never Jewish people face racism. What do Jews face instead? CONNECTIONS. Jewish connections. Ezra has a FAMILY FRIEND..He gets other Jews jobs and now he can get one for Amira. But she has too much pride. Unlike the Jews, who have always been privileged, Amira had to work for everything she has!
From Hey Alma (though I actually think some of the jokes they call cringe were funny, like when Murphy tries to bait Hill into saying the name of this song and the “Holocaust ring,” which could have been better executed but was a funny bit):
During the rehearsal dinner for their wedding, we see a montage of Ezra and Amira’s friends and family members giving all kinds of inappropriate toasts. Fatima (Long), Amira’s mom, says, “Cheers to inclusion and our newly found generational wealth.” To be clear, the Cohens do seem to be wealthy, as we learned earlier that Arnold (like his father and grandfather) is a podiatrist. However, making jokes about Jews and money, especially when not done carefully, often plays into antisemitic stereotypes. Because this line was a part of a montage, there was absolutely no time made in the movie to process the line. As a viewer, it felt like a dogwhistle — and a bit like an unchecked slap in the face.
By the way, it seems that outside of the Jewish media, it hasn’t occurred to anyone that Jews might have specific grievances about the movie, perhaps because practically every review I read in the general American and British media fully adopt the movie’s conflation of Jews and white people.
It was pretty exasperating to read reviews like this one, from The Independent.
It namechecks points of conflict – white women fetishising Black women’s hair, antisemitism in the Black community, the legacies of slavery and the Holocaust – but skims past them too quickly to say anything of substance.
Did it not occur to the writer or her editors that one of these things is not like the others?
The black characters in the movie are not free of ugly stereotypes, either. Amira gets mad at Ezra for implying that her dad is the cliched “angry black man,” but, let’s face it, that’s exactly how he’s written. Worse than that are the family’s ties to criminals and gang members.
What I keep coming back to is how Amira’s parents mostly come off as dignified in their grievances, while Ezra’s are just doofuses. “You People” doesn’t only rely on lazy stereotypes for its Jewish characters (and there are so many that I haven’t even included all of them here), it doesn’t just let characters tell damaging lies about American Jews with minimal pushback, it also portrays Jewishness and Jewish people as ignorant and embarrassing.
Ezra’s family is excited to welcome Amira, even if they express it badly. Amira’s parents could not be less enthused, which is something I can understand, as I would like my children to marry someone of the same religion one day, but the contrast in the film is jarring. After the centerpiece dinner scene, when Ezra and Amira discuss the disastrous events, Amira stands up for her family, but Ezra keeps calling his parents dumb and does not have a word of complaint about Amira’s parents’ blatantly antisemitic remarks. At the end of the movie, Ezra’s mom apologizes for her behavior in the name of all Jews - implicitly blaming an entire people for her behaving like, well, a Julia Louis-Dreyfus character - while Amira’s dad only apologizes for being mean to Ezra. Amira says being part of the Nation Of Islam is important to her, but it’s apparent that, for Ezra, being Jewish is just how he was born, something he gets dragged into by his parents, not something he takes any pride in.
Obviously, rattling off a list of Nobel Prize winners or some kind of monologue about Jewish history would not fit the tone of the movie, but Ezra seems to carry his Judaism like an albatross.
That attitude ultimately made a film that was supposed to be a comedy pretty sad, at least for this Jewish viewer.
Tomorrow is the last day to submit questions here for my “Ask Me Anything.” Only paid subscribers will get to read the answers.
I watched the movie tonight. The anti-Semitic tropes are definitely there but the movie is just as stupid as it is BAAAD. My wife and I kept wanting to turn it off because it was so stupid and plain not good.