There are movies that play well as light entertainment but err by trying to say something too deep. You People is the opposite. The only reason to have a film in which a white Jewish man courting a Black woman is in and of itself a thing is if the movie has something to say, not about why we are all the same, but how our differences matter even when we are trying to move past them.
There was a setup for that movie in which Jonah Hill’s Ezra, a white Jew who does a savvy and snarky podcast on Black culture with his best friend, meets Lauren London’s Amira, a woman who is struggling with her own relationship with her father’s strictness about what it means to be a proud Black person and her desire not to be trapped in his Nation of Islam inspired stringency. Both of those characters are brought to life at the beginning of the movie and as they get serious and fall in love.
Amira has her moment of gritting her teeth as Ezra’s over-the-top parents fall over themselves inadvertently other-ing her even as they try to make her welcome. It’s rough, but Ezra’s humor gets us through it. And then there is a promise that the movie will “go there” and reverse field, as Ezra seeks the blessing of Amira’s parents. How will Akbar (Amira’s father played by Eddie Murphy) justify why this particular white Jewish man, culturally competent and deferential when it comes to questions of Black identity, is not good enough for his daughter? But that Ezra, and the movie itself, does not show up to the ill-considered lunch date at a chicken and waffles place.
The Ezra that does appear is a version of Ben Stiller making a fool of himself trying to impress Robert DeNiro in Meet the Parents. Someone who lies about hanging out and playing basketball at the non-existent Langston Hughes Park and makes the conversation about Black icons and how Malcolm X is the Greatest Of All Time. While Akbar and, to a lesser extent, Amira’s mother Fatima, are very harsh, you can hardly blame them for being unimpressed by such an unappealing suitor. And almost everything that follows is just as weak, down to ripping off a White Man Can’t Jump scene of belonging, rather than one that would more clearly highlight Ezra’s authenticity,
But, despite the ways in which I found the cinematic experience lackluster, I do not come to bury You People any more than to praise it. Despite the missed opportunity, it is worth thinking through the very non-fictional challenge at the heart of the story.
The signature scene in the movie very clumsily glances off the central conflict. Ezra and Amira sit at the opposite end of a dinner table at her family’s home with their parents sitting in between. The conversation descends into what is glibly called the Oppression Olympics with the heavyweight bout between Slavery and the Holocaust and an undercard about what it means to respect the toxic antisemite, Louis Farrakhan.
It’s not a funny setup, nor a new one, but one that could have paid off by a careful distinction between the challenge of Ezra’s parents wanting so much to welcome Amira and her parents trying to hold the line against assimilating into a white culture that has been relentless in taking advantage of Black people. And at the center is that, as Jewish liberals, Ezra’s parents can’t see themselves as white and that, as a devotee of the Nation of Islam, Akbar not only sees these Jews as white but even more representative of those who do not realize how much they benefit from being white. Also, not a funny set up but with one more ingredient it could have been worthwhile.
Instead of hiding behind their napkins hoping to be swallowed by the carpet or, in the case of Ezra, pretending that he thinks Farrakhan is also the GOAT, the couple could have added their own voice to the mix; they could have expressed what it means to intertwine these two worlds with integrity, recognizing generational differences as well as learning from each other.
There is one character who delivers the goods throughout the whole movie, though, and she spits wisdom with fire. Mo, played by the incredible Sam Jay, is Ezra’s best friend and podcast partner. She tells him that the way she sees it: Black people see white people like a woman who had been cheated on sees the man who did it. You can work hard to make amends, try to mollify even win some forgiveness, but she will always know what you did and never look at you without thinking of how much you hurt her. That’s how deep the mistrust is. Tough words. A lot to think through. If only there was a movie that did just that.
Michael Bernstein, a Rabbi, has served since 2009 as Rabbi of Congregation Gesher L’Torah, a vibrant and dynamic Synagogue community in north Atlanta where each person’s story is embraced and Judaism is personal. He was ordained as a conservative Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1999. He and his wife Tracie have three children, Ayelet, Yaron and Liana.