Netflix just released the romantic comedy You People starring Eddie Murphy and Jonah Hill in which a white Jewish man and a black Muslim woman get together. The cringy comedy is supposed to show the culture differences between Ezra Cohen (Jonah Hill) and Amira Mohammed (Lauren London). The movie failed utterly in its representation of Jews and Judaism, because it didn’t have the guts to make the argument.
Ezra is a non-religious Jew who wants nothing to do with his Judaism. The audience first sees the character wearing sneakers to Yom Kippur services in contrast to every other shoes in the crowd. (The sheer number of feet and shoe shots in this movie is more than a little troubling.) He’s not wearing a yarmulka, claiming he left it in the car, and he’s exposing his myriad of tattoos, which are forbidden in Judaism. That’s fine, there are plenty of non-religious Jews who show up once a year to please their parents.
The problem is the parents themselves. Played by Julia Louis Dreyfus and David Duchovny, Ezra’s parent are supposed to play the role of the Jews who want to keep a semblance of their tradition alive. Yet early on, the film establishes that they don’t care about Judaism either. Shelly (Dreyfus) and Arnold (Duchovny) are going through the same motions that Ezra is going through.
The only reason this matters is because when they meet Amira’s parents, Akbar (Murphy) and Fatima (Nia Long), they are no longer simply living their lives as Jews In Name Only, they are now sitting in contrast to a family that is proud to be Muslim, proud to be black, and stand firm in their convictions and beliefs. The growth of this entire movie is in Eddie Murphy’s character arc, as he has to come to grips with the idea that his daughter is marrying a white Jewish man instead of a black Muslim like he always wanted.
This comes up early in the movie during a dinner scene with the whole family, where Akbar proudly wears a Kufi given to him by Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan is a virulent anti-semite who regularly compares Jews to cockroaches and blames Jews for enslavement of black people in America. This dinner scene was meant to be uncomfortable, was meant to show how these two families could never truly connect. This was an opportunity for the film to actual have the Jews at the table defend themselves against the accusations of the Nation of Islam.
That didn’t happen. Other than a small line saying “I know what [Farrakhan] said about the Jews”, Shelly and Arnold completely retreat from the conversation. They had no knowledge or understanding of the Jewish experience in America or the background that Jews have. They cower at the accusations hurled at them, and end up apologizing for slavery and other atrocities committed against black people while accepting that the Holocaust and Jewish slavery in Egypt was no big deal (and there’s zero mention of the dozen other genocides agains the Jewish people throughout history).
The dinner scene turns into tribal warfare, in which each side is blaming the other for everything that exists within their own tribe. When Akbar says “I don’t turn on the news every day and see people in yarmulkas getting shot by police because they was out minding their business,” there is no response from the other side of the table. That talking point notwithstanding, even if you don’t want to debunk it, the Jewish side of the table could easily come back and say “I turn on the news everyday and see Hassidic Jews getting beaten up in Brooklyn by black men,” because that happens far more often Thant black people getting shot by cops for “minding their own business”. There was simply no interest in the movie to make a level playing field between these two tribes.
The Cohen family’s disdain for its own ethnic background is contrasted with the Mohammed family’s pride in theirs. Akbar despairs that his grandchildren will be half-white while there’s zero mention from Shelly that her grandchildren will not be Jewish (as Judaism runs through the mothers side). Ezra happily dismisses the notion of having a Rabbi perform the wedding ceremony while Amira at the very least wants an Imam to perform it, despite her lack of religious belief. Fatima is there supporting her husband and daughter, showing her own convictions, while Arnold can’t stop talking about Xhibit.
There’s also the cheap jokes against Jews that work to actively minimize the hardships of Jewish history when no such jokes would be permitted against black. There is every indication that Ezra makes a good living. By the films own admission, he’s been a stockbroker for 10 years, is financially stable enough to buy a nice house in Los Angeles with Amira when they get engaged (the Zillow page they are looking at shows multi-million dollar homes). He can quit his job to pursue podcasting with no financial repercussions, and even offers to “float” Amira for awhile because she didn’t get contracted on a large job. So when he went out to buy a ring, there are numerous jokes in multiple scenes that it’s a small ring that he bought from Tiffany’s. So he makes up a story about it being his grandmother’s ring that she kept through the Holocaust. It seems like they deliberately ignored the entire characters financial situation just so they can make a holocaust joke, and not even an original joke. They stole the joke from The Hangover. That’s not only lazy writing, it minimizes the Holocaust and doesn’t even get a laugh. If you’re going to minimize the atrocities of the Holocaust, at least make me chuckle while you’re doing it.
You People is so much more that just a compilation of jokes that are offensive to Jews (although it does that). It turns Jews into token white people contrasted with the real people with real experiences, the black Muslim Mohammed family. You can take the Jewish characters and replace them with non-religious Presbyterians or Protestants or any other religious denomination and you would have the exact same movie. It’s a blown opportunity for real writing about real Jewish people.