‘You People’: Race, Culture and Religious Differences Are False Flags

In the popular new Netflix melodrama, a neurotic break from reality brings us down to earth

‘You People’: Race, Culture and Religious Differences Are False Flags
“So, do you hang out in this part of the airplane a lot or do you just come here for our food and women?” (Netflix)

We look to Hollywood these days to create digestible fantasies that also self-congratulate for their forward-looking liberalism and inclusivity, things we can participate in by purchasing a movie ticket or streaming service. This ironically peaks in the pageantry of the opulent Oscars, in the City of Los Angeles, known for its extremes of material wealth and homelessness, racial division and gentrification. When Hollywood creates fictions set in its own city, those striking partitions become tricky, but it helps for every main character in a given story to occupy the same space of class and station.

This is the case for “You People,” the Netflix movie set in LA that pairs actors Jonah Hill and Eddie Murphy as matrimonial antagonists in a sort of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” redux and is currently the most viewed title on Netflix. (Hill also co-wrote the script with director Kenya Barris.) But race, culture and even religious differences are all false flags in this rapid-fire romp of improvisational-style ultra-racialized comedic quips. While the true underlying glue that holds the movie together is class and affluence, “You People” does touch on a truism of actual attempts to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion: the fact that diametrically opposed beliefs are not so easily bridged in the real world, where deep-seated prejudices inform cultural and racial identity.

As the movie ushers us into the setting, street signs and highway exits (either to gentrified Compton or posh Brentwood) stand as more than just establishing shots by functioning as another character in the movie: a Los Angeles that has been flattened for those with the bank accounts to afford budding real estate and high-end automobiles. Scenic touchstones such as Tupac billboards and Nipsey Hustle murals, plus the intersection of Slauson and Crenshaw, create a visual shorthand for the many fossilized movie and music references.

Jonah Hill plays Ezra Cohen, an Ashkenazi-American financier heavily influenced by hip-hop and Black culture who also helms a podcast (his true passion) with African-American best buddy Mo, played by Sam Jay. She fills in as a kind of body doppelganger for Hill, who looks worn out and weathered from his real-life weight-loss rollercoaster ride, a kind of walking casualty to the demands of Hollywood for a certain type of body image. Jay/Mo is also an echo of the many white and Black buddy-sidekick movies, here casually dropping the N-word on Ezra with affection that belies any dissonance.

Their easy friendship is a contrast to what comes next, almost as if it cost Ezra nothing — no racial epiphany or mental breakdown — to be able to relate to Mo comfortably. (Her name and presence also strongly suggest an alternate gender and sexual identity never fully fleshed out but which is “all good” — like race, it creates no insurmountable difference between the two.)

Ezra first meets love interest Amira (Lauren London) after mistaking her for his Uber driver. In a courtship that runs a montage of chichi brunch spots, sneaker stores with kicks on plinths, plush tie-dye sweatsuits and Balenciaga sweaters, they fall in love to a soundtrack of H.E.R. and Childish Gambino tracks. Passing pop-culture references abound in the verbose boxing match of nervous chatter that riffs on Drake drinking Manischewitz out of a goblet, accented by text-message and social-media chats bubbling up the side of the screen. In a whirlwind, Ezra and Amira fall head over heels for each other, get engaged and shack up in a new house. (Perhaps troubles with unaccepting Inglewood neighbors will form the substance of a sequel.)

Then comes one disastrous meeting after another with the parents, the Cohens, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny, versus Eddie Murphy and Nia Long as Akbar and Fatima Mohammed. Eddie Murphy (looking every bit the City of Angels film journeyman and sporting an even fresher face here than Hill) enters the story to James Brown’s “Payback,” wearing a hoodie emblazoned with “FRED HAMPTON WAS MURDERED,” as he strides with attitude into a fresh-squeezed juice joint. His first line of dialogue is a world-weary exclamation: “How am I the darkest person in the room?!” A member of The Nation of Islam, his religiosity is as much a form of cultural practice and racial belonging as a doctrinal commitment. This is roughly congruent with Ezra and Amira sharing a penchant for bacon, ironically rejecting the same source of religious prohibition.

Ezra suffers under one session after another contra Akbar (also known as Woody back in the day, before his conversion to Islam), with resulting hijinks from Ezra’s attempts to make the star-crossed nuptials work. The same goes for Amira in relating to Ezra’s mom, who manages to say one offensive and gauche thing after another, like a running neurotic break with reality. When the Cohens finally come together with the Mohammeds, a disastrous dinner ensues, with arguments over whether the wedding should be officiated by an imam or a rabbi, Black people in boats versus Jews on trains, and a competition over the depths of suffering between slavery and the Holocaust, culminating in Mama Cohen accidentally setting fire to Akbar’s kufiya (personally gifted by the Nation of Islam’s highly controversial leader, Louis Farrakhan). These arguments and deeply embarrassing, cringe-worthy moments eventually wear on Ezra and Amira, setting them to face off against each other like their parents.

At one point, a Jewish wedding planner suggests the idea of “Old Hollywood” as a theme for the ceremonies, and Akbar snidely refers to the time when Black entertainers were segregated. Of course, this movie happens far away from that kind of Hollywood, in a place where the price of diversity and inclusion is a flashy downtown matrimonial dinner with walls of Cristal Champagne one need only pluck from the heavens for a toast to new family. Contrapuntal confrontations between Ezra/Akbar and Amira/Cohen force a conclusion to the relationship, which is restored in a surprise-ending coda.

Posing as a fairy-tale farce, the movie is ultimately a melodrama that flirts with the kind of racial hatred and bigoted anomie that have made LA the site of murders, riots and many film fantasies portraying civilizational collapse under the weight of social discord. But it’s all neatly resolved in the end, and it’s no spoiler to say that the happy ending is as abrupt as it is well-heeled (literally, at a swanky sneaker store), featuring Rhea Perlman and Elliott Gould as Cohen grandparents leading a hora dance that segues into thick hip-hop DJ beats and booty-shaking.

Maybe the honeymoon will take place in Paris, as alluded to by a track from Jay-Z and Kanye West that becomes yet another source of uncomfortable grousing between Ezra and Akbar. With that reference, the real world abounds in casual antisemitism as a cultural worldview, just as much as ignorant ideas about African Americans inform conflict and violence. We watch movies like this to escape from all that, while imagining ourselves enjoying the expensive delights of Las Vegas and Palm Springs — but as the Uber passenger, definitely not as the driver.

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