A stacked cast can’t save Kenya Barris’ stale & sluggish race relations comedy.
A household name (and one of the most in-demand creators of color) in network TV and Hollywood over the last decade, Kenya Barris has shepherded tv sitcom universes like Black-
ish/Grown-ish/Mixed-ish, collaborated on box office smashes like Girls Trip, and developed franchise revival attempts like Shaft and Coming 2 America. Within these projects, his central preoccupation has been negotiating authenticity in relation to race, class, family, and the self.
Barris’ directorial debut, You People – a modern riff on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – should hypothetically be the ideal venue for this interest. That’s not the case with this sluggish, confused Netflix original that feels unwilling to engage with its own fertile subject matter.
Co-written with star Jonah Hill, You People struggles to justify its existence beyond its overqualified cast and lay-up logline. The odd couple romance here blooms between Ezra (Hill), an endearingly awkward white banker with dreams of full-time podcasting, and Amira (Lauren London), a bubbly and sharp-tongued Black costume designer trying to break into Hollywood. They’re not unconvincing as a couple thanks to both performers’ expressive body language, but their conversations do little to evince how their relationship would survive given their upbringings in disparate Los Angeles neighborhoods.
Soon, that fragile relationship is tested by uniquely awful family members. Ezra spars with his well-meaning but prolifically insensitive Jewish mother, Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), while Amira cloaks her dating life from her diligent but disapproving Nation of Islam father, Akbar (Eddie Murphy). Racial differences spark respective insecurities and resentments, but faith serves as the source of the film’s most regular ideological wedges.
A dinner party skirmish stands out as the most successful example, as each side takes turns edifying the other side of the table. Dual powder kegs of Louis Farrakhan and Holocaust/slavery equivocations hint at a more memorable (or risky) comedy, but that tension dissipates with a bloodless slapstick gag that could be predicted from another zip code over. As parents, Shelley and Akbar are equally irritating but contra parental foils. Shelley
overcompensates with Amir and her family, embellishing her minimal knowledge of Black experiences with a performative eagerness only a few clicks away from the parents of Get Out.
Akbar, meanwhile, snipes at every pressure point of Ezra’s personal and professional life to scare him away from his daughter. They’re a solid duo of villains. Dreyfus works in a sillier register than usual, but she nails a heightened cluelessness even when the jokes are fine. And Murphy brings a quiet dignity and simmering annoyance that’s just as potent as his more antic style – and a welcome reminder of his sizable screen presence. Other family members and friends serve as a single joke or straight man against the chaos like Ezra’s dorky dad (David Duchovny) who can’t stop mentioning Xzibit, or Amira’s mother (Nia Long) who plays both support and mediator to her husband.
All these dynamics should yield either an infectious culture clash (Barris’ bread-and-butter in
things like Barbershop: The Next Cut) or a vulgar cringe comedy (Hill’s pigeonholed niche until
recently). Instead, this lands somewhere between a disposable rom-com and an overextended
sitcom. At its best (at least a few early seasons), Black-ish threaded the needle between
parable and character-driven comedy – a show where even the requisite episode lesson is
delivered with a light touch.
But it’s not just the sensibility that repeatedly draws comparisons to Barris’ TV work. From the
prefab Los Angeles collage bumpers to the uninvolving camerawork, there’s barely a moment
where You People feels like an actual movie as opposed to, well, a television show. Combined
with the pinballing tone, middleweight hit rate for the jokes, and a smothering Daniel
Tannenbaum’s score with the subtlety of a John Phillip Sousa composition, You People should
have taken its own trite advice and just embraced its own identity.
You People is now available on Netflix.