The woke antisemitism of “You People”

by Brian on February 12, 2023

in In the News,Jewish Holidays and Culture,Reviews,The Old Country

“You People” is a disturbing film that hews close to the memes of modern-day woke culture. 

The Netflix movie, which began airing in January, has been savaged by reviewers. Brian Tallerico at called it “a stunning misfire, an assemblage of talent in search of an actual movie.” Wendy Ide at The Guardian called it “frequently excruciating.”

My own take away after subjecting myself to two hours of cinematic torture: This movie plays like a primer on how to be a self-hating Jew in America today.

“You People” depicts a romance between Jewish 35-year-old Ezra, played by Jonah Hill, and Lauren London’s Amira, the Muslim Black woman he initially mistakes for his Uber driver. Their parents, Shelley (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and David Duchovny as Arnold for the Jews, Eddie Murphy (Akbar) and Nia Long (Fatima) for the African-American side, are caricatures who straddle the line between tone-deaf and hateful.

It’s mostly played for laughs and there were a few decent chuckles in the film. But while Murphy’s Louis Farrakhan-worshipping Akbar doesn’t pull any punches in his contention that his daughter should not be going out with a white man (ironically, Lauren London has a Black mother and an Ashkenazi Jewish father), Ezra’sparents are just clueless. It’s not only their awkward attempts at being more woke than their potential machatunim, but about their Jewishness in general.

Which is to say that, other than an opening scene in a synagogue (actually the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles) for Yom Kippur, there are no positive depictments of what it means to be Jewish. Beyond saying,”We’re Jewish,” any actual Jewish content in the form of rituals, holidays or discussions of contemporary Jewish issues are simply missing. Suffice it to say the words “Israel” or “Zionism” are never uttered.

What there is instead is a steady stream of pandering by the Jewish protagonists to position themselves as cool and acceptable to Amira’s family. As Andrew Lapin writes in JTA, “In a modern-day twist, the white liberal family, rather than expressing anxiety over the race of their child’s partner, fetishizes her family instead.” 

The one redeeming scene in “You People” takes place during the initial cringe-worthy meet-cute between thetwo families. When Akbar asks Shelley if she’s “familiar with the work” of Farrakhan, a notorious antisemite, Shelley briefly drops her solicitous smile and quips “Well, I’m familiar with what he said about the Jews.” 

Good for you, Mom, but then Ezra immediately changes the subject – to no avail. The disagreement comes back again in a rip-roaring shriek fest on which community – Black or Jewish – has suffered more oppression. 

“Are you trying to compare the Holocaust with slavery?” Akbar asks menacingly over dinner. 

“Oh, I would never do that,” Shelley recoils, before adding, “Although the Blacks and the Jews have a similar struggle.” 

“Jews were the OG slaves,” Duchovny’s Arnold offers sheepishly, which Murphy’s Akbar dismisses as being 3,500 years too far in the past. 

Arnold doubles down. 

“I don’t have to go back to Egypt. I just go back 75 years. Jews only make up one half of one percent of the world’s population because we were systematically annihilated,” he says. 

That small percentage “seems to be doing pretty good right now,” Akbar shoots back, employing a classic antisemitic trope that jettisons any trauma Jews have suffered for a transactional approach that defines us as no different than the white majority.

“Our people came here with nothing, like everybody else,” Shelley responds, to which Fatima, Amira’s mother, lets loose the conspiracy screed that the Jews came to America “with the money [they] made from the slave trade.”

That inflammatory indictment is never addressed further due to some slapstick hijinks involving a flaming kufi (cap) Akbar received from Farrakhan himself. The denigration is dropped like a hot knish, mustard-side down. 

And then the film reverts to its main message: Jewish apologetics and attempts to prove who’s the most woke. No one defends the Jews again over the next hour and a half. At one point near the film’s end, Shelley asks for forgiveness from Amira and her family “on behalf of all Jewish people.”

“Louis Farrakhan is actually the hero of this movie,” writes Allison Josephs on the Jew in the City website.

As this is a rom-com, we all know that the couple will hit rocky times before the inevitable happy ending. 

I didn’t buy it. 

After so much vitriol has been spilled on screen, and so much ignorance is left unrefuted, the idea of any of these unself-critical leopards changing their spots is as ludicrous as the making of this movie was. 

The film never acknowledges the partnership between Jewish and Black activists marching for civil rights together in the 1960s. Rather, in its ill-conceived attempt at showing how two very different communities could conceivably come together, it achieves the opposite. 

In that sense, “You People” is the ultimate anti-assimilation comedy. Perhaps representatives of the Jewish Agency should show this as an aliyah inducement?

The Jewish Internet has also been up in arms.

“There’s much Jewish apologizing for racism. None for antisemitism,” tweeted David Baddiel, author of “Jews Don’t Count.”

“It’s shameful when the groveling, oblivious, over-woke Jew is the best we can do,” added Israeli media consultant Linda Lovitch.

I’m not saying that all films must have an uplifting moral about loving the other unconditionally – strife and conflict are the propellant for much art – but I disagree with producer Kevin Misher’s assessment that “detailed discussions of antisemitism would have distracted” from the film being a character-driven comedy.

There were certainly characters in “You People.” Comedy, I’m not so sure about.

I first “reviewed” You People in The Jerusalem Post.

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