If you’ve spent any time talking to the demographic Kenya Barris claims he’s making movies and TV for, you know that the writer/director is a controversial figure. Very rarely does Barris trend on Twitter without people weighing in on how homogenous all of his work seems: stories about wealthy Black families living in Los Angeles that seem allergic to casting actors—women in particular—who are darker than a paper bag. Often, these stories attempt to broach the delicate subject of race relations in the United States with characters dialoguing about all of the familiar beats: policing in America, Juneteenth, and shoe game. Even more often, they fail to say anything of actual meaning and instead show off Barris’s habit of rejecting nuance for a one size fits all (and often stereotypical) portrayal of the Black community.
It’s bizarre, then, that despite all of the outcry on social media against what Barris has dissected over and over again on black-ish, grown-ish, and the still ridiculously-named #blackAF, he’s decided to continue to push his weird agenda in his latest film, You People.
You People is a modern-day riff on the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and its 2005 remake, Guess Who. Marking Barris’s first time in the director’s chair for a feature film, You People stars Jonah Hill (who also serves as a co-writer alongside Barris) as Ezra Cohen, a 30-something Jewish broker and part-time podcaster with his friend Mo (Sam Jay) living in Los Angeles who the movie goes out of the way to portray as “down with the culture.” Ezra wears Jordans (that he keeps meticulously clean), listens to H.E.R., and laments about how none of the nice Jewish girls his mother sets him up with “get” him. Enter Amira Mohammed (Lauren London), a Muslim costume designer Ezra meets after getting into her car, thinking it’s his Uber (a totally normal and not at all borderline creepy meet cute). Their relationship is briefly chronicled over a montage of Ezra and Amira enjoying Black art together, including falling in love in front of a George Floyd memorial mural and cuddling on the couch watching a Malcolm X documentary. Like its cinematic inspiration, conflict doesn’t arise until Ezra and Amira meet each other’s parents—and once they clash over their racial and religious differences, the game is set.
For a film that wants to spark discussion on one of the most nuanced topics, it does itself a disservice by creating broad avatars for characters to start these discussions. Ezra’s parents, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny, while well-intentioned, are painted with broad strokes as the type of white liberals who are eager to have mixed-race grandchildren and will express their views of the police without provocation but are unaware of how their microaggressions against Black people cause harm. On the other side of the spectrum are Amira’s parents, portrayed by Eddie Murphy and Nia Long, who are members of the Nation of Islam and proud supporters of Louis Farrakhan. Amira’s father, Akbar (Murphy), is first introduced by wearing a hoodie that proudly exclaims, “Fred Hampton was Murdered.” For being such crucial parts of communicating what the film wants to say, it should be no surprise that Barris has chosen yet again to lean into stereotypes when creating its characters. Doing so minimizes the real-world harm that white people cause Black people or paints all “woke” Black people as close-minded Afrocentrists (what the Black community refers to as “hoteps”).
While the bulk of You People focuses on the clash between the Cohen and Mohammed families, it often struggles to find the right tone. It wavers between wanting to be a romantic comedy and sharp social satire but cannot stick the landing for either. Much of the focus on race relations feels like it was lifted from an after-school special. At one point, Akbar tries to coax Ezra into saying the n-word after playing a Jay-Z song for him in the car. The film’s truly horrible centerpiece is a dinner between the two families with dialogue that, on the page, must look like a bunch of Instagram infographics as the families volley back and forth, trying to debate who’s, had it worse: the Blacks or the Jews?
Meanwhile, its romantic leads have a little spark between them, with few laughs mined from the idiosyncrasies of their relationship and the means they go to to be together. Its cast, while stacked, rarely gets the chance to truly shine—Murphy, in particular, comes across as the most subdued, which feels like a waste of his immense comedic talents. Even Louis-Dreyfus has few jokes that truly land. If you have comedic titans stepping into the arena, why waste their talents on phoned-in jokes about the n-word that went viral on Twitter years ago?
Unfortunately, You People seems par for the course as far as Barris’s oeuvre goes, taking talented performers and having them prop up caricatures of the types of people he’s claiming to skewer. By not addressing the real pain caused by neoliberalism or painting Black people as virulent haters of white people, Barris perpetuates the racism he claims to be dismantling.
You People is ultimately another flawed installment from Barris, but at this point, not much more is to be expected from him. Even with an entire game cast and a blueprint of beloved cinema to refer back to, Barris cannot conjure anything original, thoughtful, or worth tuning in to. By now, the question isn’t when Kenya Barris will manage to create something worthy of our time but whether it’s even worth it for us to stick around to see if he can.