Any movie that begins with “Remember Obama?” and has the talented Hollywood writer-director Kenya Barris’ name to it, is bound to be edgy. The Netflix film You People is more than a love story and a wedding movie. At the heart of it, the film presents liberal naivety about racism.
You People is a cultural comedy about race, co-written and co-produced by Kenya Barris and Jonah Hill. What happens when a White Jewish podcaster Ezra (Hill) falls in love with a Black costume designer Amira (Lauren London), and why should this even be a problem in 2023?
“I hope no one ends up dead,” says Sam Jay who plays Hill’s colleague Mo. “In this social climate, with this much racial intensity going on in this country right now, you chose to pull a move like that? Bold, bro. Real bold.”
No, there’s no violence. But racism isn’t just about violence and abuse. Barris shows that racism is also plain ignorant behaviour born out of being too lazy ‘to do the work’. And that, more importantly, racism also stems from liberal fetishising.
In tackling ignorant behaviour, he is also exposing everyday racism and subtle micro-aggressions. That’s classic Kenya Barris turf – shining light on the fault lines in middle class mingling. The biggest forms of unacknowledged racism occur in these cracks. Just like he looked at his mixed race family in Netflix series BlackAF, and Black middle class code-switching in Black-ish, Barris returns with a cracker of a movie with a plot where characters are struggling with language and conversations in post-BLM America (Black Lives Matter).
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Let’s have a difficult conversation
The awkwardness comes tumbling out of the cupboard in the very first meeting when Hill’s parents (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny) meet Lauren London. Every time Dreyfus opens her mouth, she says something appalling – when she feels the need to say out of context that the police has always been cruel toward Black people (because “it’s a hot topic right now”, she later explains), or that everyone should kneel during the national anthem.
She tries so hard to tick all the boxes of what she considers Black issues. And then she tries to sound woke and ends up sounding cringy and patronising: “Our family is growing in such a cool and hip and funky way. We are a family of colour. We are the future now.”
The encounter is a classic example of what author Robin DiAngelo wrote in her seminal book titled Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm.
On the other hand, Eddie Murphy, who plays London’s father, isn’t very welcoming either. He is like Robert De Niro in Meet The Parents (2000), except his suspicion in this film is of mixed race unions. They just represent ‘confusion’ for him and produce Bruno Mars lookalikes.
The first words that come out of Murphy’s mouth when he meets Hill: “So do you hang out in the hood all the time or do you just come up here for our food and women?”
He even tests Hill by taking him to a barbershop and a basketball game in a Black neighbourhood.
It gets worse. The White and Black parents meet each other. One thing leads to the other and Murphy asks Dreyfus the most dangerous question. “Are you trying to compare the Holocaust with slavery?”
“Well, the Jews were technically the OG slaves,” David Duchovny says.
“Oh, you going all the way back to Egypt? You do know that was 3,500 years ago. Slavery is one great-grandparent away for us,” Murphy retorts.
You People lays out all the landmines that the two communities must learn to sidestep just to have a simple conversation. It speaks to how little inter-mingling there still is and how the two lack the shared tools and language to engage respectfully with each other. But Barris, who himself lives in a mixed-race family and loves exploring inter-racial spaces, wants to force this difficult conversation. It’s the only way. By making bold moves.
On the face of it, the concept of this dating-comedy You People appears outdated. But by bringing ‘nice racism’ into it, he has just taken the battle into the progressive camp.
Rama Lakshmi is the editor of Opinion and Features, ThePrint. She tweets
(Edited by Prashant)
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