(JTA) – The new Netflix comedy “You People,” about an uneasy union between a Jewish man and a Black woman in Los Angeles, was always aiming to provoke its audience.
“I feel like the movie has something to say,” producer Kevin Misher told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It allows different sides to evolve and understand everybody’s point of view on the world. … People grow to understand each other. And when they don’t understand each other, they understand that there are, in fact, differences.”
But when they shot the movie a year ago, director Kenya Barris (“Black-ish”) and his Jewish co-writer and star Jonah Hill couldn’t have predicted how it would land in the midst of several national stories about Black-Jewish relations, including prominent Black celebrities who have dabbled in antisemitism.
For example, the film’s use of a popular song that includes the N-word in its title at two different intervals — first as a joke about Hill’s character being unable to say the title, then at the end under a hora — takes on a heightened meaning today. Kanye West, who now goes by Ye and is one half of the talent behind the song, recently went on a months-long antisemitic tirade that included him expressing his admiration for Hitler.
Misher, who is Jewish, acknowledges that the track is “a difficult song to play in that moment.” Netflix’s original plans to feature the first scene involving the Ye song in the film’s teaser trailer were scrapped amid his onslaught of antisemitic comments.
But the filmmakers felt the scene needed to remain in the final cut of the film — even as they cut another scene in which their actors spoke Yiddish — because it underlined the uncomfortable racial tensions between Hill’s character, a Jew named Ezra, and co-star Eddie Murphy, who plays Akbar, the soon-to-be father-in-law Ezra is trying to win over.
“It was important, I think, for us to have that song remain, so that it portrayed the divide that they would have to cross,” Misher said. “It wasn’t about the artist of the song, it was about the words in the song.”
Misher also justified the song’s reprisal at the end of the film, noting that Ye himself doesn’t sing on the sample: “Jay-Z is singing at the end.”
“You People” was conceived as a mashup of “Meet The Parents” (which Misher also produced) and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.” In a modern-day twist, the white liberal family, rather than expressing anxiety over the race of their child’s partner, fetishizes her family instead.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny play the Jewish parents. Although the relationship between Jews and whiteness has been a topic of serious academic debate for generations, and although Lauren London, who plays Hill’s Black love interest Amira, herself has an Ashkenazi Jewish father, the Jews in the movie are simply portrayed as white.
Barris’ team was unable to make him available for a JTA interview prior to the film’s release, and Hill has announced he will no longer do press for any of his films, citing his mental health. But Misher told JTA that he thought the film did an admirable job of portraying a specific “culturally Jewish” Los Angeles family. As a Jew himself, he said it was also important to him that the film’s depiction of Judaism be “authentic.”
To that end, he brought on the rabbi and cantor at his own synagogue, Kehillat Israel in Los Angeles, to play the rabbi and cantor at Ezra’s fictional synagogue in the movie. (Scenes depicting a Yom Kippur service were shot at the Skirball Cultural Center, an L.A. Jewish museum.) He also hired an on-set Jewish cultural consultant from Hebrew Helpers, a nationwide Jewish studies tutoring service.
There are other racially charged moments in the film that may sit uneasily with Jewish viewers. A tense dinner-table conversation with Amira’s family includes discussions of the Holocaust and slavery, including Akbar reminding Ezra’s family that some American Jews owned slaves. (The film’s premiere on Netflix on Friday coincides with International Holocaust Remembrance Day.)
Akbar is a follower of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whose antisemitism gets a small acknowledgement, although the wedding at the end of the film is jointly officiated by a cantor and an imam meant to represent the Nation of Islam. (Most Muslims do not consider the Nation of Islam to be part of the religion.)
Also at the film’s end, Louis-Dreyfus, playing Hill’s mother, apologizes to Amira and Akbar for her series of racist microaggressions “on behalf of all Jewish people.” This follows an apology from Akbar — but only for being mean to Ezra, not for committing his spiritual and political life to an antisemite.
Misher said that while Barris wanted to invoke tense political topics, the core of the film still aimed to be a character-based comedy. Detailed discussions of antisemitism, the filmmakers believed, would have distracted from that.
“If, suddenly, somebody starts standing up at a soapbox and waxing philosophic about the way the world is, I think that would have felt inauthentic to the journey of these specific characters,” he said.
At the end of the day, the makers of “You People” still believe their film has a message worth sharing.
“I feel like we got it right, in terms of how we represented the relationship between these two families,” Misher said.
As for the other conversations about racism and antisemitism these characters could have had, he said, they might come up if Netflix greenlights a sequel.
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