by Cinthya Silverstein
It’s not often that we see our cultures represented together in buzzy movies, especially not ones set in Los Angeles, the city we love so much, and with the comedy king Eddie Murphy in the cast, and we were excited about the possibility of seeing ourselves reflected in the story of blended Black and Jewish families.
Unfortunately, at the expense of comedy greats including Murphy, Jonah Hill, Deon Cole, Elliot Gould and Julia Louis Dreyfus (with cameos by so many others!), the movie ended up being a painful reminder of how our family — made up of Mexican and Black Jews with Ashkenazi roots — so often must explain and justify our existence in Jewish and Black spaces.
The movie starts off with Jonah Hill’s character very comfortably recording his podcast about “the culture” (ostensibly, hip-hop culture?) with his Black, queer best friend, seeming to set the stage for the progressive coolness 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 that song from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch The Throne” album.
Yet we find him in scenarios that time and again have him playing into uncomfortable tropes — like saying “our boy” when referring to Malcolm X — as he quickly and nervously falls into defining Black culture at its most reductionist form. It’s no surprise then, that the film goes on to portray Blackness as a monolithic, one-dimensional stereotype.
It doesn’t get any better when we 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 movie, Jews are portrayed as white and uncool — sometimes aggressively so, almost as if the writers didn’t trust the audience to know this family is Jewish if not for the mom complaining about tattoos and trying to set up her son with a highly educated daughter of a friend.
My husband and I have been to the Skirball Center on many occasions, one of them being a wedding for two supremely cool Jews of color. But you would never know from the movie that such an event could ever take place, or even that Jews of color exist in Los Angeles — even though, ironically, the actor playing Jonah Hill’s eventual 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 overly simplify the worlds they depict based on racial binaries.
This flattened view of the world is especially lamentable because the rom-com genre has at its fingertips the easiest blueprint: All families are ridiculous and oftentimes the blending of two families even more so. Within my family alone, there are several different cultures that consistently push against each other in humorous ways. There’s “nerd culture,” “comic book culture,” “skate culture,” “food culture.” Even in my culturally blended family, where my Mexican immigrant parents regularly share meals with my Black mother-in-law, the resulting humor has never been about racial differences. In a story where the message is that we can all get along, we don’t need the punchline to be about race.
“You People” could have told a story in which Jonah Hill’s character actually subverts the standard narrative, maybe one in which his character realizes how easy it is to fetishize Blackness and through experiences with his father-in-law comes to find the richness and fullness of Black culture that can even be expanded by his own Jewish background when blending his family with his fiancée’s. Or a movie 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 see instead a Muslim Eddie Murphy try to find ways to connect with modern day hip-hop culture. Either option would allow the audience to see the layers in these characters that we are so often erased from narratives about Jewishness or Blackness.
Instead the writers opted for the easiest avenue: comedy based on persistent racial “othering.” But the differences shown are no longer based on any actual truth. They are based on beliefs we have been told to keep repeating in an effort to keep the agenda of white supremacy intact. The writers are depicting worn-out “differences” that don’t represent an authentic Jewish or authentic Black experience. Presenting any cultural experience as the “authentic” one is just another way of saying stereotypes are true — and that’s not funny at all.
Several years ago, my family participated in Ava Duvernay’s life-swap show in which we traded homes and experiences with a family of white Mormons. Our goal at the time was to show examples of coexistence and to demonstrate how contemporary identities are multilayered. But we also hoped that the experience would help us find greater acceptance as Jews of color, which still feels generally elusive. “You People” underscored for us why.
At one point during the life-swap, my husband said to me, “Listen, 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 chuckles in my house during “You People.” The comedian Mike Epps was funny as he always is, and I laughed when Jonah Hill showed up to his date in a tie-dye sweatsuit, in a very L.A. move. But for nearly two hours, all I could think about was how “You People” feels like a movie for folks who are clinging to stereotypes because it helps them feel comfortable with their own cultural identities, which once were dominant but now must share real estate with others that are equally authentic. By confining the definition of culture to a singular idea of “race” this movie prevents an important conversation from moving forward. And that means my family, and so many other Jewish families, are once again left behind.
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.