Netflix’s ‘You People’ wasn’t funny at all to my Black and Mexican Jewish family
(JTA) — As a two-part Jewish, one-black, and all-comedy-loving couple, my husband and I sat down with the (maybe not high) hopes of watching “You People from Netflix.
It’s not often that we see our cultures represented together in trendy movies, especially not ones set in Los Angeles, the city we love so much, and with the king of comedy Eddie Murphy in the cast, and we were excited about the possibility of seeing ourselves reflected in the history of mixed black and Jewish families.
Unfortunately, to the detriment of big names in comedy, including Murphy, Jonah Hill, Deon Cole, Elliot Gould and Julia Louis Dreyfus (with cameos from so many more!), the film ended up being a painful reminder of how whose family – made up of Mexicans and black Jews with Ashkenazi roots – must so often explain and justify our existence in Jewish and black spaces.
The film begins with Jonah Hill’s character very comfortably recording his podcast about “culture” (apparently, hip-hop culture?) with his black and queer best friend, seeming to set the stage for the progressive freshness that will later allow him to date someone who is not “square” and potentially black. Hill’s character loves rap music, sneaker culture and Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, and he knows not to say the full title of this song from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch The Throne” album.
Yet we find him in storylines that have him repeatedly playing in uncomfortable tropes — like saying “our boy” when referring to Malcolm X — as he quickly and nervously falls into defining black culture in his most reductionist form. It’s no surprise, then, that the film continues to portray Blackness as a monolithic, one-dimensional stereotype.
It doesn’t get any better when you see Hill’s character in a Jewish space: High Holiday services at the Skirball Cultural Center, here serving as a synagogue. There and throughout the film, Jews are portrayed as white and uncool – sometimes in an aggressive way, almost as if the writers don’t trust the audience to know that this family is Jewish except for the mother who complains about tattoos and tries to set up his son with a friend’s highly educated daughter.
My husband and I have been to the Skirball Center many times, one of them being a wedding for two extremely cool Jews of color. But you’d never know from the film that such an event could take place, or even that Jews of color existed in Los Angeles — though, ironically, the actor playing Jonah Hill’s would-be love interest is black. and identifies as half Jewish. Instead, in creating the world for “You People,” the writers continue a dated tradition of movies that oversimplify the worlds they portray based on racial binaries.
This flattened view of the world is all the more lamentable because the rom-com genre has the simplest scheme at its fingertips: all families are ridiculous, and often the blending of two families even more so. Within my family alone, there are several different cultures that are constantly pushing against each other in humorous ways. There is “nerd culture”, “comic book culture”, “skate culture”, “food culture”. Even in my culturally mixed family, where my Mexican immigrant parents regularly share meals with my black mother-in-law, the resulting humor has never focused on racial differences. In a story where the message is that we can all get along, we don’t need the fall to talk about race.
“You People” could have told a story in which Jonah Hill’s character actually subverts the standard narrative, perhaps one in which his character realizes how easy it is to fetishize darkness and through experiments with her stepfather has just found the richness and fullness of black culture which can even be extended by his own Jewish origin when mixing his family with that of his fiancée. Or a film in which a member of the Nation of Islam tries to openly accept a Jewish son-in-law and, rather than using Louis Farrakhan as an awkwardly divisive plot point, we instead see a Muslim Eddie Murphy trying to come up with ways to connect with modern hip-hop culture. Either option would allow audiences to see the layers of these characters that we are so often erased from narratives about Jewishness or blackness.
Instead, the writers opted for the simpler route: comedy based on persistent racial “otherness.” But the differences shown are no longer based on any real truth. They are based on beliefs that we have been told to repeat over and over again in an effort to keep the white supremacist agenda intact. The writers describe worn-out “differences” that do not represent an authentic Jewish or authentic Black experience. Presenting any cultural experience as “authentic” is just another way of saying that stereotypes are true – and that’s no fun at all.
Several years ago, my family was on Ava Duvernay’s life swap show where we swapped homes and experiences with a white Mormon family. Our goal at the time was to show examples of coexistence and to show how contemporary identities are multi-layered. But we also hoped the experience would help us gain more acceptance as Jews of color, which still generally seems elusive. “You People” pointed out for us why.
At one point in the life exchange, my husband said to me, “Look, when you’re black and Jewish, and everything hurts, laughter is the best medicine. But laughter doesn’t come easily when the jokes only make sense if you don’t exist.
Sure, there were a few laughs in my house during “You People.” Comedian Mike Epps was funny as he always is, and I laughed when Jonah Hill showed up for his date in a tie-dye tracksuit, in a very LA move. But for nearly two hours, all I could think about was how “You People” feels like a movie for people who cling to stereotypes because it helps them feel comfortable with their own cultural identities, which were once dominant but now have to share real estate. with other equally authentic ones. By limiting the definition of culture to a singular idea of “race,” this film prevents an important conversation from moving forward. And that means my family, and so many other Jewish families, are being left behind once again.
is a dedicated mother, photographer and self-taught living and working in Southern California. Author photo by Jennelle Fong.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.