Ezra Cohen (Jonah Hill) and Amirah Mohammed (Lauren London) have been dating for six months. Ezra is a Jewish atheist who works at a brokerage firm but who says his lifelong dream has been to be a podcaster. Lauren is Black and a devout Muslim. A graduate of Howard University, she is pursuing a career as a designer. Despite coming from very different backgrounds, Ezra and Amirah are deeply in love and want to get married. However, becoming engaged also means …. MEETING THE PARENTS!
Shelley and Arnold Cohen (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny) are self-styled progressives who immediately embarrass Ezra by going out of their way to trying to show how liberal and non-racist they are. Shelley, in particular, goes out of her way to bond with Amirah but it’s immediately obvious that Shelley views Amirah as being more someone to show off than as an actual human being. Meanwhile, Akbar Mohammed and Fatima Mohammed (played by Eddie Murphy and Nia Long) are members of the Nation of Islam who admire Louis Farrakhan and who claim that the Jews were behind the slave trade.
Just from that plot description, you can see a huge part of the problem with the new film, You People. Whereas Shelley’s problem is that she’s too quick to brag about how much she loves the idea of having a black daughter-in-law, Akbar’s problem is that he’s an anti-Semite. His main objections to Ezra are that 1) Ezra isn’t black and 2) Ezra’s Jewish. While Shelley takes Amirah shopping, Akbar tries to get Ezra killed by tricking him into wearing “the wrong colors” to a barbershop. While Shelley shows off Amirah to all of her liberal friends, Akbar shoves Ezra onto a basketball court. While Shelley is awkwardly trying to prove that she’s an ally, Akbar is inviting himself to Ezra’s wild Las Vegas bachelor party. (Akbar is disturbed to discover that Ezra has a “coke guy.” If this film had been made ten years ago, Ezra would have had a weed guy and it would have been easier to buy the film’s contention that Akbar is being unreasonable.) Shelley is certainly obnoxious and she fully deserves to get called out for her behavior. But Akbar is an anti-Semite who peddles the type of conspiracy theories that have been at the center of the alarming rise in recent hate crimes. Whereas Shelley is clueless, Akbar is actually malicious. And while that’s a story that one certainly could try to tell, it also makes it a bit difficult to buy the film’s fanciful ending. The movie ultimately can’t decide if it wants to be a fearless satire of race relations or a feel-good romcom. The tone of the film switches from scene to scene and Kenya Barris’s direction is so inconsistent that he makes Judd Apatow look like a disciplined filmmaker by comparison.
The cast is full of talent but the characters are largely one-dimensional. Jonah Hill is undoubtedly a good actor but he’s also nearly 40 years old and, with his full beard, he looks about ten years older, which makes it a bit hard to believe that he would be that concerned with getting the approval of his future in-laws. At first, a role of Akbar would seem ideal for Eddie Murphy but, with the exception of a scene where Akbar quizzes Ezra on his favorite Jay-Z song in an attempt to trick Ezra into saying the “n-word,” Murphy doesn’t really get to do much other than stand around with a pained expression on his face. Probably the most interesting performance in the film comes from Mike Epps, who plays Akbar’s brother and who is one of the few characters willing to call everyone out on their hypocrisy. But, unfortunately, Epps is only in a handful of scenes and the film uses him as more of a dramatic device than a fully rounded character.
As I watched You People, I couldn’t help but think about another film about an interracial wedding, Rachel Getting Married. That film provided a believable and multi-layered look at two different cultures coming together. You People, however, can’t quite make up its mind what it believes or what it wants to say and, unfortunately, what it does say is often said with a surprising lack of self-awareness. At times, it’s so proud of itself that it feels like it almost could have been written by Shelley Cohen.
You People is streaming on Netflix.