In defense of You People, the hit Netflix movie you hated

The culture-clash comedy does its job of providing a fun escape. Why is that so hard to buy?

The number one movie on Netflix, You People, has mainstream critics cringing and Black Twitter talking back to the screen. The takeaway: they’re not buying any of it – not the culture clash, not the casting and definitely not the chemistry between the two romantic leads.

More reinterpretation than remake of the 1967 classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, You People – Black-ish creator Kenya Barris’s feature film directing debut - is a typical romcom by the numbers. But instead of two basic white people playing the will they, won’t they game, writer Jonah Hill is Ezra, a white Jewish man trying to make it work with a Black Muslim woman called Amira, played by Lauren London, in spite of their hidebound families.

And I liked it! - contrary to what seems like everyone else who watched it, Black Twitter included. It was fun, fast-paced and full of well-timed cameos I never saw coming – not least Mike Epps playing Eddie Murphy’s younger brother. Overall, I found it funnier than promised but also winsome and earnest in a way that reminded me of another Netflix romcom I heartily enjoyed: Always Be My Maybe – likewise dinged by many for being too cliche. (Umm, it’s a romcom?)

You People was dismissed by Black Twitter early on, starting when it was first announced in summer 2021 as yet another manifestation of Barris’s obsession with his own mixed-race heritage. Any excitement over the leading lady casting of Lauren London quickly gave way to grumbling about Nia Long being far too young and fine to play her mother.

After its release, audiences also had a hard time believing Eddie Murphy as a militant Black father and husband who sees racism in everything. But I found him believable as he cracked wise about his kids having light skin and freaked out about his kufi hat, gifted from Louis Farrakhan, catching fire, I was right there with him, in stitches the whole time.

By far the most searing skepticism was reserved for the relationship between Hill and London, with many flat-out recoiling that they could be romantically linked. The mental block comes down to London having been in a relationship with the rap legend Nipsey Hussle that ended with his tragic shooting death in 2019. Hill and London’s first scene together is punctuated by Hussle’s 2018 hit Last Time That I Checc’d.

Jonah Hill as Ezra and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Shelley in You People.
Jonah Hill as Ezra and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Shelley in You People. Photograph: Parrish Lewis/Netflix

In a recent interview, London said she’d only “just started” to heal from that immense loss. The idea that she could rebound with a guy like Hill was so beyond the pale. But that’s just the thing. You People isn’t supposed to be real. London is (checks notes) acting.

But it wasn’t just Black audiences piling on negative feedback. The Daily Beast roasted it for furthering Barris’s “obnoxious racial agenda”. The Guardian gave it two two-star reviews. My colleague Lauren Mechling launched our takedown fest by pronouncing Hill and London’s connection “a romance without a beating heart”.

First, the idea that Hill couldn’t actually woo London is absurd to me; audiences seemingly can’t grasp that. He isn’t the same pudgy geek who made his leading man debut opposite Michael Cera in Superbad. Never mind that he’s slimmed down, slicked his hair back and stuck on a body load of tattoos. He’s a rich and famous Academy Award nominee who runs with Leo DiCaprio, a renowned yachtsman.

Hill slathered those dollops of his real-life charisma on to Ezra, a successful broker with a deep curiosity for Black culture and politics and thirst for authenticity – the latter clearly a byproduct of Hill’s real-life hothouse sessions with Dr Phil Stutz.

Ezra’s proposal speech in particular felt like a declaration you’d expect from someone who had read The Five Love Languages. Throw in the hip-hop-inspired fashion sense, the Black best friend (Sam Jay) and rapier wit, and Ezra starts looking quite like the kind of swaggy white ally you see all around Los Angeles – the guy who quotes Drake without irony, dominates pickup basketball games in Inglewood and cruises Melrose sneaker shops in a tie-dye tracksuit, walking on the sidewalk street side of his boo.

Barris and Hill do the work of setting up Ezra and Amira’s romance – Amira outright says she wants a man who’ll be totally straight with her, while Ezra’s own path to reconciling his anxious relationships and life choices begins with him totally relaxing with her. Too often London is framed as the Black girl nextdoor – in the music video for Pharrell and Jay-Z’s Frontin’ or on the cult soap The Game, for example.

David Duchovny as Arnold, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Shelley, Jonah Hill as Ezra, Lauren London as Amira, Eddie Murphy as Akbar, and Nia Long as Fatima in You People.
David Duchovny as Arnold, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Shelley, Jonah Hill as Ezra, Lauren London as Amira, Eddie Murphy as Akbar, and Nia Long as Fatima in You People. Photograph: Parrish Lewis/Netflix

But in You People, she gets to serve lewks and play a whole woman who is not afraid to express her disappointment with a racist world, even if that means offending her white partner and Shelley, Ezra’s Karen of a mother – which Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays with alacrity.

At one point, Amira snaps “I’m not a toy” at her potential mother-in-law, who can’t seem to find any other ways to connect with the Howard grad than to compliment her on her acrylic nails and bamboo earrings. When Ezra tried to hook up Amira with a job connection after a busted interview, Amira tells him that she won’t be a kept woman and explains why his help offer reeks of white privilege.

Best of all, London gets to play a love interest whose romantic chemistry flows from witty repartee – a rarity for a Black leading lady. For me, the bond between Ezra and Amira was sealed that first night they spent under bed covers and in the bathroom the next morning brushing their teeth. Their whole vibe was like something out of a Nora Ephron film: kismet. And for it all to end (spoiler) with a surprise wedding at shoe palace, after they kicked off bonding over slides – well, what’s more LA than a secret sneaker pop-up?

Romcoms as a whole have been taking it on the chin lately – from Julia Roberts and George Clooney’s straightforward Ticket to Paradise (too formulaic, said critics) to Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane’s gay-themed Bros (a box office bomb). In the swipe-right age, perhaps we’ve grown too cynical for the meet-cute. But that doesn’t mean that You People was a failure. Sure, every joke in the film doesn’t land as hard as David Duchovny’s solo rendition of John Legend’s Ordinary People. But I laughed. Plenty.

As idle entertainment, You People does the job of providing a fun escape. Why is that so hard to buy?


Andrew Lawrence

The GuardianTramp

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