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Netflix film ‘You People’ takes us back to a time that never was

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I’m not going to lie — when I saw the preview for the Netflix film You People, starring Jonah Hill and Lauren London, about a white Jewish man and Black Muslim woman who fall in love, I was both curious and maybe a little hopeful that You People would be a modern Black/Jewish retelling of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

The acclaimed 1967 film, starring Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, illuminated the struggles even nice white liberal couples like Tracy and Hepburn had when their daughter brought home her accomplished Black physician fiancé (Poitier). I hoped that You People would depict a Black/Muslim/Jewish storyline full of the contemporary conversations and cultural expressions unique to what happens when Black and Jewish people fall in love.

As I settled in to watch You People, I was particularly looking forward to seeing depictions of Jews of color. I anticipated a modern movie set among the racially diverse Jewish communities in Los Angeles, with a story that expressed the diversity and authenticity of both Jewish Americans and African Americans.

All of my optimism was dashed in the opening scene, set at Yom Kippur service at the Skirball Cultural Center in Bel Air. As soon as the camera pulled back to reveal that the congregants were all white, I knew that You People was not going to genuinely depict what American Judaism looks like in 2023.

There has been significant criticism of You People due to its antisemitic portrayal of Jewish Americans and racist portrayal of Black Americans. Yet there hasn’t been enough focus on one of the biggest misses of all: that an entire film about the relationship between Black and Jewish communities, a film informed by a paid “Jewish consultant” no less, omits the very Black Jewish people the film had a responsibility to explore and include.

The film is 117 minutes of stereotypes and caricatures about both Black Americans and Jewish Americans. The Jewish characters are anxious, nosy, boundary-crossing, racist and underinformed (or misinformed) about Black Americans and Black History. And the Black characters are underdeveloped and limited in their dimensions.

Chances are that any Black American so close to the Black Power movement that they would be gifted a kufi from Minister Louis Farrakhan, as Eddie Murphy’s character Akbar was, would have incredible stories and experiences to share. But not in You People. Akbar, the father of London’s main character Amira, was reduced to a non-religious “Black Muslim,” whose most memorable trait is a proximity to Farrakhan. The film does nothing to engage with the complexity of the Black American Muslim experience, and instead plays solely into Jewish discomfort with the well-known antisemite. Akbar’s interactions with his potential white Jewish son-in-law Ezra are a flattened and antagonistic projection of someone who could have had a character line rooted in our collective and complex history and vision for the future.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character Shelley, the mother of Ezra, reacts to the idea that the future offspring created by Amira and Ezra would be Black. She muses, “Our family is growing in such a cool and hip and funky way!” a comment that is at best awkwardly tone-deaf, and at worse tokenizing. She continues, as if to make fun of the 20% of U.S. Jewish families that are multiracial, by overenthusiastically exclaiming, “We’re a family of color.” Shelley’s comments are the closest that You People gets to acknowledging that Jews of color exist, yet because it is mentioned in a flippant and frankly appropriative manner, Black and brown Jews become the unwitting punchline of the joke. To fleetingly and somewhat racistly note the possibility of creating baby Jews of color, absent any actual portrayal of Jews of color, is inaccurate and regressive.

I believe it took actual effort to consciously exclude Jews of color from You People. According to Brandeis University’s 2021 study of Jewish LA, 15% of Los Angeles Jews self-identify as people of color, 9% of which are children — a number that is increasing over time. This means that in every You People scene where there were Jews or people of color, we know from the data that many of those characters should have been non-white Jews. And if no non-white Jewish character was in the imagination of the writers and producers of You People, why not at least a reference to Jews of color?

The lack of effort to accurately depict Jewish Los Angeles feels both lazy and deliberate. I wonder if someone in a position of power made the decision to reflect a binary of Blacks and Jews to keep us as multiracial community regressed and trapped back in time. There aren’t many movies that take on relationships between Blacks and Jews, and You People seems to work extra hard at a depressing historical depiction more akin to the struggles the interracial couple of 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner faced rather than a forward-looking reflection of reality.

The notion that all Jews in the United States are white is a myth which can easily be dismantled by data dating back to the 1700s. Today, 20% of American Jews are part of multiracial families, and 15%-20% of American Jews are people of color. Those numbers increase every day.

I understand producers have the creative license to depict as little or as much of the depth and truth as they wish. But the reality is that Hill’s character — a young Angeleno Jew who hangs out with Black people, and with a Black lesbian best friend (Sam Jay) — would definitely know Black and brown Jews. Wouldn’t it have been far more interesting to watch conversations between the characters with Jews of color in the mix? Wouldn’t the opening scene of Yom Kippur service at the Skirball Center also be more interesting and more realistic if it included Jews of color among the congregants?

With all of the stereotypes, inaccuracies and historical regressions present in the film, perhaps the saddest and most ironic part of You People is that London knows something of being a Jew of color, as she has a white Jewish father (her mother is Black and not Jewish). While London was raised by her mother and identifies as a non-Jewish Black woman, her existence as the progeny of a relationship between a Black American and Jewish American defies the normative mass of white Jewish identity portrayed on screen. Jews of color are not mysterious and unknown, and yet their erasure from You People, when an actual Black woman with Jewish heritage is in a leading role, is painfully paradoxical.

In 2023, when there are ample data sets available to inform movie producers about U.S. Jewish racial diversity, and dozens of efforts, programs and organizations supporting and celebrating the racial diversity of the American Jews, You People reinforces harmful stereotypes. It simplifies the depiction of both Jewish and Black Americans, and tells an inaccurate tale of who we are as Jews by omitting racially diverse Jews from the storyline.

Netflix had the opportunity with You People to tell a Black Jewish story of 2023. Instead, old stereotypes and reductive characters were rehashed, forcing us into the way-back machine of 1967.

To contact the author, email opinion@forward.com

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