(February 7, 2023 / Jewish Journal) The new Netflix comedy “You People” follows the courtship and wedding preparations of a Jewish man named Ezra (Jonah Hill) and Black Muslim woman named Amira (Lauren London) as they attempt to keep their relationship afloat despite the misgivings and cultural insensitivities of their parents, notably Ezra’s mother Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Amira’s father Akbar (Eddie Murphy).
The story begins on Yom Kippur in Los Angeles. The camera glides down a line of pews, revealing pair after pair of dull, respectful synagogue footwear. Our gaze then hesitates and stops at the sight of gleaming, colorful sneakers. We have found our renegade protagonist. He’s decked out in streetwear and refuses to wear a kippah. He’s not like other Jews.
When he’s not rolling his eyes at a synagogue service or insulting his well-meaning mother, Ezra works in finance and also hosts a podcast about “the culture” with his best friend Mo.
When it comes to his Jewish identity, he is cavalier and mocking. When it comes to black identity, however, he is eager to participate—but only to the extent that black identity can be universalized. Thus, for Ezra, black culture becomes “the culture.” If sneakers and hip hop, for black characters like Mo and Amira, are signs of ethnic belonging, for Ezra they are a way to signal his freedom from ethnicity—his ability to belong to any group other than the one he was born into.
A montage of date scenes in which we don’t hear any dialogue is supposed to be enough to convince us that Ezra and Amira are in love. In truth, their relationship never quite makes sense. Amira is kind, talented, beautiful and hardworking. Ezra, on the other hand, is a spoiled, delusional, disrespectful, bleach-blonde cokehead in a tie-dye sweatsuit who regularly calls his own mother an “idiot” and who quits a well-paying finance job to chase an absurd dream of being a fulltime podcaster.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter that their relationship doesn’t make sense. The movie isn’t really about relationships, interracial or otherwise. In terms of literary analysis, this isn’t a marriage plot. Rather, it’s an assimilation plot. It’s about what happens when the American ideal of deculturalization is challenged by meddling parents with parochial ethnic concerns.
Things reach a boiling point for the couple when Ezra and Amira attempt to host both sets of parents for dinner. Racial hijinks ensue, leaving the pair less convinced than ever that their love will be able to transcend their backgrounds.
Exasperated, Ezra suggests that they “make a clean break” and “never speak to these people ever again.”
Of course, he’s joking. Making a “clean break” is the one thing that Ezra cannot do, for this would remove all drama and intrigue from the assimilation plot, which requires that some scrap of ethnic identity remain as grist for the mill.
Ezra’s Judaism, in providing him with something to rebel against, makes him interesting. Without it, his colorful kicks, rather than standing out against a backdrop of formal footwear on Yom Kippur, would become lost in a crowd of nearly identical sneakers at any given Los Angeles bar.
For all of its failures, “You People” helped me to understand something important about Jewish identity in America, especially the kind of Jewish identity championed by stars like Jonah Hill and other Ashkenazi funnymen like Seth Rogan and even Larry David. These stars are deeply associated with American Jewishness. They lead with their Jewishness, sporting Jewfros and making Bar Mitzvah jokes. They write Judaism into every role they play. And yet, they famously take every opportunity to degenerate Judaism, mock religious observance, or stress their lack of concern with Israel. Is this not a paradox?
As they say in Talmudic discourse, “ein kashia.” There is no paradox here. Ethnic particularity is performed in order to make their lack of Jewish attachments seem refreshingly brave. The idea is to keep just enough Jewishness on display so that one can remain in a perpetual state of triumphing over it—continually shedding one’s Jewishness and yet never becoming a gentile. This is the eternal hero in the Jewish American epic of assimilation.
Whether in “You People,” “Unorthodox,” or “My Unorthodox Life,” most of the Jews we see onscreen are of this variety. We are encouraged to applaud those who flee their Jewishness, and rarely do we get to see those who cherish it, grapple with it and live it deeply.
We deserve a better “You People,” one in which Ezra is the kind of Jew whose Jewish identity means something to him, like Amira’s black Muslim identity means something to her. Perhaps then we would have a movie with something to say about black-Jewish relations. Perhaps then we would have a movie that does justice to the joys and complexities of interfaith family building.
If they keep Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Eddie Murphy in the mix, it could even still be funny.
Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.
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