Let me just put this out there: You People, the new film by Jonah Hill and Kenya Barris, might be one of the most entertaining and smartest films that I have seen in quite a while.
I will go one step further: If you are looking for a program that would bring Blacks and Jews together for a night of serious comedy and even more serious discussion, this film has your name on it.
Because this is a very brave movie, that dares to enter places that most of us would rather not venture.
But… I will get to the “but” later.
Jonah Hill plays Ezra Cohen, a young Jewish man from West Los Angeles, who has a podcast on “the culture” that he produces with a Black partner. He meets and falls in love with a young Black woman, Amira Mohammed (Lauren London — herself the product of a marriage between a Jewish father and an African-American mother).
Yes, you got that right. She is from a Muslim family (her father, Akbar, played by Eddie Murphy, doing a great straight performance, and her mother, Fatima, by Nia Long).
The movie centers itself on the tensions between the two families — with the Cohens played by David Duchovny and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Think Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the 2023 upgrade.
Shelley and Arnold Cohen are your textbook Jewish liberals. They are falling all over themselves at the prospect of having a Black daughter-in-law. Their liberalism can barely conceal their awkwardness. They fill their banter with typical, cringe-worthy pseudo-liberal and attempted woke phrases.
The Mohammeds, for their part, are devotees of Louis Farrakhan. They criticize the Cohen family for their white Jewish privilege — which amounts to having three generations of podiatrists in the family. None of the table talk about the history of Jewish oppression rings true for them; in their assessment, Jewish pain is in the past. The Jews seem to be doing very well.
This is a very Jewish movie. In fact, this movie is about as Jewish as it gets — down to the actors portraying the family (Julia Louis-Dreyfus has historic, venerable Jewish ancestry; she does not seem to identify as Jewish). The opening scene occurs at High Holy Day services at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, with its miniature parade of iconic Jewish actors (Richard Benjamin and Elliot Gould).
Let me get to the “but.”
In one uncomfortable scene, the couple and the future machetanim (I think I can use that term here) are having dinner, and they discuss the situations of Jews and Blacks.
Akbar mentions that he supports Louis Farrakhan, and that his kufi cap is a gift from the minister himself. Ezra chimes in with (awkward, seemingly forced) praises of Farrakhan. Shelley begins to push back on Farrakhan, but that part of the discussion goes nowhere when…but I will not divulge what happens.
Spoiler alert: The penultimate scene features a confrontation between Shelley Cohen and Akbar. Shelley apologizes for having been such a clueless white liberal; for having treated her future daughter-in-law as a “toy,” as a showpiece for her liberal friends and family; of having inappropriately essentializing her future daughter-in-law’s Blackness. She apologizes in the name of all white people, and of all Jewish people as well (yes, she got carried away, but seriously: what was that all about?).
Akbar, for his part, apologizes for mis-judging Ezra’s qualities as a future son-in-law, and for not having given him a chance.
Shelley Cohen’s comments were heavy-handed and suitable sources of eye-rolling. But, what she was guilty of trying to do was to establish a kind of commonality. She did it badly.
But, over to Akbar. He apologized for having been too hasty in dismissing Ezra.
But, that really is not what required moral scrutiny.
It goes back to that awkward dinner. When Akbar mentioned his admiration of Farrakhan, that moment required a far deeper response, and not Ezra’s effusive praise, which amounted to nothing less than Jewish self-erasure.
Louis Farrakhan is an antisemite, and perhaps the most vocal antisemite in America. He blames Jews for the slave trade, plantation slavery, Jim Crow, sharecropping and general black oppression.
This is a man who has said:
- “The Jews, a small handful, control the movement of this great nation, like a radar controls the movement of a great ship in the waters. … The Jews got a stranglehold on the Congress.”
- “Pedophilia and sexual perversion institutionalized in Hollywood and the entertainment industries can be traced to Talmudic principles and Jewish influence. Not Jewish influence, Satanic influence under the name of Jew.”
- “…You are not real Jews, those of you that are not real Jews. You are the synagogue of Satan, and you have wrapped your tentacles around the U.S. government, and you are deceiving and sending this nation to hell. But I warn you in the name of Allah, you would be wise to leave me alone. But if you choose to crucify me, know that Allah will crucify you.”
- “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.”
Farrakhan’s Jew-hatred counts. It matters. It should not be dismissed, no more than any person’s hatred.
I am now training for my next career — clean up person for Hollywood scripts.
Therefore, I would re-write the script of the family dinner scene.
Shelly, or her husband Arnold — or hey, Ezra! — could have said: “Hey, wait a minute, Akbar. Sure, Minister Farrakhan believes in empowering the Black community. We understand. But, do you understand how hurt and yes, vulnerable, we feel when he attacks Jews, when he says such terrible things about Jews?”
That’s called self-respect.
And then, the Shelley and Akbar apology scene.
Shelley would apologize for her flimsy attempts at solidarity.
Akbar would say: “I misjudged Ezra, and for that, I am sorry. But, there’s more. I need to re-think the words of Minister Farrakhan. Those words are hateful, and they do not represent me
“And I’d like to hear more about all those attacks on Jews and synagogues that I’ve been reading about.”
The truth is, and despite our best intentions: American Jews and American Blacks do tend to view each other as, well, You People. There are many Jews of Color. But, with notable anecdotal exceptions, there are few overlaps between our two communities, a very tiny Ven diagram of our fears and concerns. We really do not know each other — each other’s pains, triumphs, and dreams.
We all need to know the heart of the Other.
American Jews need to understand the fears of Black parents. Jewish teens, especially our boys, do not live in the same world as Black kids. For a white teenager, a traffic infraction is a ticket; for a Black kid, it is a potential death sentence. That leads to two very different conversations that white, middle class parents have with their kids, and which Black parents — of any social class — have with theirs.
American Blacks need to understand the fears of American Jews. True, our children are not targets. But, we feel that our entire people has a target on its back. We are living through a wave of antisemitic acts, including the regular, under-reported physical attacks on visibly Orthodox Jews. This past weekend, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue in Bloomfield, NJ.
This all hurts, and it chips away at the American Jewish soul — and I am grateful to my local Black partners in West Palm Beach, who have spoken out against Jew hatred.
This is a great film. The music is great, and mostly new to me. You must also catch the scene in which Akbar takes Ezra into a barbershop, which is a direct cinematic quote from the barbershop scene in Eddie Murphy’s 1988 comedy, Coming To America.
But, like I said: Community social justice alliances should watch this film, and discuss it.
We should tell this story to each other.
A rabbi asks a disciple: “Do you love me?”
“Of course, I love you.”
“Do you know what gives me pain?” the rabbi asks.
“How can I know what gives you pain?” the disciple responds.
To which the rabbi responds: “If you do not know what gives me pain, how can you say that you love me?”
Do we know what gives pain to the Other?