The following movie review began with angry texts I sent to friends and colleagues yesterday, as I was watching You People, the number one movie now streaming on Netflix. It premiered on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I’ve got to hand it to them on the timing: nothing says #neveragain like #rightnow.
There are numerous spoilers below, but when a movie starts out so rotten, it is impossible to ruin it. If I had to sum up the most basic problem with You People, it wouldn’t be the abundant Holocaust jokes, like Ezra buying a small diamond for his fiancé, and deciding that he’ll lie that it’s his grandmother’s “from the Holocaust.” You know, “the Holocaust” – the get out of jail free card for every Jew.
It’s also not that the Jewish parents in the film are played by actors whose families used to be Jewish, generations ago, but then assimilated into extinction. No, the main issue with You People is that everyone in the film loves Black culture and no one in the film loves Jewish culture. In fact, they hate it.
In an age of celebrating marginalized identities, how could it be that that one identity would be lauded while the other would be highlighted for its guilt (Ezra’s grandmother in the opening Yom Kippur synagogue scene (incorrectly) tells him that he can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery due to his tattoos), its shame (Ezra refuses to wear a yarmulke during Yom Kippur services after his mother asks him to), its sexual violations (after services, Ezra’s orthodontist offers to examine his genitals, other members of the synagogue say sexually inappropriate things), its big-nosed Jews (both of the Jewish women Ezra dates have prominent noses), and its money-loving Jews (in his first date with a Jewish girl, she comments how exciting it must be that he gets to work with so much MONEY everyday!)?
Because in You People, Jews are not considered a marginalized group. Instead, they are white, rich, privileged and responsible for the suffering of marginalized people in the world. And the way they get to this reality is by continuously lying and misrepresenting the Jewish past and present. So let’s jump right into the lies and misrepresentations. There is no room to mention them all. I will mention the most glaring ones:
Then there’s this subtle device used in the movie, where Ezra (or his sister) is present with Amira in nearly every instance when his parents are around, and because of this, he (or his sister) get to reinforce how weird and off they are (especially his mother). But Ezra meets Amira’s parents and/or her father alone, several times. Amira never gets to act as a counterbalance to her stern father, to tell him he’s being unreasonable. He basically rips into Ezra repeatedly, with no pushback, till the very end, when a friend tells him he’s too harsh. Then he has a change of heart.
While Ezra’s family is over-exuberant in their excitement for Amira to be part of the family, Amira’s family seriously looks down on Ezra. Akbar, Amira’s father, believes this must be some payback from his wife’s white grandfather. I’m used to Jews wanting their children to only marry Jews, for the purpose of Jewish continuity. I could understand other ethnic or religious groups feeling the same way.
But it is deeply uncomfortable to watch the Jewish side, so excited for this relationship to happen while the Black side continues to look down on them. I saw this dynamic continue on Twitter, where many Black women were commenting on how disgusting looking Ezra is, and how he could never get such a beautiful girl like Amira. Representation matters, people.
Akbar’s revulsion with Ezra comes to a head at the rehearsal dinner. Through several examples, we see that Ezra is a pathological liar. He pretends to know neighborhoods and songs he doesn’t know, he claims that he doesn’t do cocaine, but then we meet his cocaine dealer (who notes that he’s a “mensch” – is the dealer Jewish too??!). Amira establishes at the beginning of the movie that she dislikes yes-men who say the popular thing to be liked, when she dumps her Black boyfriend. Ezra is actually this exact guy (literally lying to her about the ring when he proposes) but Ezra, the perfidious Jew, is so good at his craft that Amira doesn’t see through it. But Akbar does.
We also know that Ezra has come to Vegas before and hired prostitutes. Ezra is a lying, degenerate, drug-doing Jew. Akbar actually says all these words in a speech at the rehearsal dinner, but at the last moment, he says this is NOT what Ezra is. Ezra then THANKS Akbar for not humiliating him and outing him publicly, to which Akbar responds that he spared his daughter’s humiliation, not Ezra’s.
As I watched these scenes, I was trying to imagine how the writer could have so much contempt for Jews, but then I wondered if Louis Farrakhan is actually the hero of this movie, and Jews as lying, degenerate, whoring, low-lifes is exactly how he sees them. The film is simply writer/director Kenya Barris normalizing those ideas. Here are a few quotes from Farrakhan:
“The Jews were responsible for all of this filth and degenerate behavior that Hollywood is putting out..”
“To my Jewish friends, I shouldn’t use the word ‘friends’ so lightly, you have been a great and master deceiver, but God is going to pull the covers all off of you.”
“They [the Jews] are the greatest controllers of Black minds, Black intelligence. They write the scripts — the foolish scripts on television that our people portray. They are the movie moguls that feature us in these silly, degrading, degenerate roles…”
Kenya Barris seems to be a Farrakhan fan. He has Akbar tell an emotional story of meeting Farrakhan and getting his kufi (hat) due to their deep connection. This movie is Barris’s chance to get back at the Jews and finally make them silly, degraded, and degenerate in a movie.
Farrakhan, also said that the Jews were responsible for the slave trade, the conspiracy theory Amira’s mother alludes to. When Ezra’s father asks for proof, Amira’s mother quips that she’ll just go get her slave receipts from her purse. It’s the perfect retort because it ends the conversation with a joke. The audience doesn’t actually get an answer, but it doesn’t matter.
Farrakhan is a Holocaust denier, and when the two sets of in-laws meet for dinner, the Holocaust is played down. When Amira’s parents note the relationship Black people have to boats, due to slavery, Ezra’s parents mention the relationship Jews have to trains, due to the Holocaust.
Akbar, in sheer disgust, questions how they could utter the Holocaust in the same moment slavery is being mentioned. Ezra’s parents don’t counter that both atrocities were horrific. They simply let it slide. Akbar has a grandmother who picked cotton, but as the Cohens try to defend their oppression, noting that they worked hard for what they have, we find out that Ezra doesn’t just have a father who’s a rich doctor (and I’m sure making him a podiatrist, is another subtle dig at Jews), Ezra doesn’t just have a grandfather who was a rich doctor. No, in Kenya Barris’s deranged world, the great-grandfather was ALSO a doctor. Because Jews always had everything (off the backs of slaves). That the majority of Jews came to the US with absolutely nothing, running from Cossacks, Nazis or systemic exile in the Middle East was completely irrelevant to this movie.
Akbar isn’t happy simply beating Jews on past persecutions. He 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 by a Kenya Barris fan. Jews are currently the most attacked religious minority and most attacked (per capita) racial minority, as well. The majority of Jewish attackers, tragically, are Black men. Ezra’s parents mention none of this.
The erasure of past and current Jewish persecution, while pitting Jews against Black people is absolutely vile.
I’m almost done. 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: Rick Greenwald. Rick is a JEW who is CONNECTED. 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! Jews getting ahead with connections is a trope that is so embedded, it’s seen as a compliment!
And finally, Shelley and Amira have some final scenes together that took my breath away. Amira finally confronts Shelley on her tokenism issue. And this weird conversation about Black hair comes up.
Now Jewish hair, sometimes called a “Jewfro,” is not exactly like Black hair, but there are similarities. Many Jews, like Jonah Hill (who straightened and dyed his) have to deal with very kinky, curly hair. That the conversation is only about how exotic Black hair is to Shelley, with no acknowledgement or understanding that many Jews also have a version of this experience themselves, once again, erases and whitewashes the Jewish reality.
There are beautiful ways to build bridges between people of different backgrounds, who have shared experiences. This movie strove to do none of that. What Kenya Barris wanted to do was have a Black woman scream at a Jewish woman, for all she’s done wrong, then scream at her more for having the audacity to feel remorse, and “clutch her pearls.” The movie and story can only come to completion when Shelley not only apologizes on behalf of all white people but also apologizes on behalf of all Jewish people.
Kenya Barris appears to be a vile Jew-hater. Jonah Hill seems to have internalized so much self-hatred, he participated in this dumpster fire, which gives the movie cover. There are interesting and meaningful conversations that could and should occur between non-Jewish Black people and Jewish people of all colors and ethnicities. This movie set everything back. My only hope is that it will shine a light on all that is wrong so we can do the work to fix it. The JITC Hollywood Bureau is doing our part in the entertainment industry to educate about and advocate for the Jewish people. We have our work cut out for us!
This article was sponsored by Exhilaread, a thrilling journey to literacy.