‘You People’ and the Tediousness of the Interracial Romcom

My biggest issue with Kenya Barris' new film is not what it is, but what it could be. I can’t get mad at a film that doesn’t invite me to feel anything.

‘You People’ and the Tediousness of the Interracial Romcom
Screenshot:Parrish Lewis/Netflix

The first thing to understand about You People, Kenya Barris and Jonah Hill’s new Netflix comedy, is that it is not a movie about people—not in any real sense. You People is focused less on character or story and more on its central idea: that the problem with interracial relationships is not the couple but the social forces that surround them, represented in this case by a white Jewish family and a Black Muslim family who awkwardly clash when their kids fall in love. Hilarity (kind of) ensues.

Jonah Hill plays Ezra, a 35-year-old hypebeast with a boring job who dreams of launching a podcast on “the culture” with his best friend, Mo (Sam Jay). After an initial 15 minutes that largely centers on Ezra’s life, family, and friends, we finally meet Amira (Lauren London), a Black costume designer from Baldwin Hills. Throughout the movie we are asked to believe that this pair are in love, though there’s very little evidence to support this idea.

There is a brief dating montage—trips to sneaker stores and museums, lunch, midday strolls, a few extremely chaste kisses and one single suggestion of sex. But there is little in the way of chemistry, mostly because the couple—particularly Amira—are so shallowly realized as individuals. There is no room for chemistry because the couple is incidental and maybe even irrelevant to the film; their purpose is to symbolize a political issue and catalyze the antics of Ezra’s clueless white liberal mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Amira’s pro-black, Louis Farrakan-loving dad (Eddie Murphy).

Which, fine—this film does not pretend or even attempt to be anything more than just one long joke about oppression Olympics, white liberal guilt, Black exasperation, and racial tension in the form of awkward banter. Every scene has the energy of a quickly-improvised skit that always ends with someone saying something offensive and someone else being offended. The concerns and observations and humor of this movie feel very 2014 in that way. Some of it is “true,” but very little of it is actually funny—and that is frustrating, because on paper this should be a very, very funny movie. But not even the brilliance of comedy legends like Louis-Dreyfus, Murphy, Mike Epps, and Kym Whitley can illuminate the weirdly out-of-date comedy. There are only so many times one can hear a “N***as in Paris” joke and still be able to crack a smile.

You People is part of a long line of movies of this kind (the interracial rom-com, the meet-the-parents chaos comedy), which paint in very broad strokes and squeeze the humor and hijinks out of white-and-black-romance until all that’s left is a very pat, convenient ending that’s meant to be hopeful, but always feels weirdly bleak, because, of course, no one has actually changed. The film is in dialogue with others in its genre (Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Guess Who? being the most obvious comparisons), which has yet to go anywhere truly interesting. To its credit, You People does incorporate the question of religion into the tired white-vs-Black conflict, but the religious humor circles the same drain as the racial humor—who is more oppressed, and how?

In his 1967 essay on Sidney Poitier, James Baldwin had this to say about Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?: “I can’t pretend that the movie meant anything to me. It seemed a glib, good-natured comedy in which a lot of able people were being wasted. But, I told myself, this movie wasn’t made for you. And I really don’t know the people for whom it was made.”

The question of for whom this kind of film is really made crossed my mind several times while I watched You People. Ostensibly it’s targeted towards “everyone,” and maybe even skewed towards a Black audience–but something about it felt pointed in the opposite direction. It feels like a movie for an audience that doesn’t exist anymore or perhaps never existed–a film calibrated to mean nothing even as it tackles meaningful ideas. It isn’t even offensive.

When the first teaser trailer for You People dropped last month, Kenya Barris started trending on Twitter. People were saying that after Black-ish (plus its many spinoffs) and the Netflix series Rich AF, it seems as though Barris is obsessed with telling racial and often interracial stories. “I feel like it’s insane to be honest with you,” Barris told ESSENCE when asked about the critique. “I’m by us for us.”

He continued: “We are so monolithic that people want to just have something to say because there’s not enough of us. So hopefully the more we do this, the more stories we can tell. They want all of our stories to be for everyone and that’s impossible. One story can’t speak to all of the Black experiences because there’s so many Black experiences.”

In this respect, I agree with Barris. I do think he is “obsessed” with race, but I don’t see that as an inherently bad thing or a particularly interesting critique. It’s not surprising that a Black man navigating a very white industry would have some sort of preoccupation with race, the thing that thoroughly permeates all our lives. All art-making, on some level, is an exercise in obsession, so it makes sense that the themes Barris comes back to would be closely related to his own life. I just wish these explorations were more interesting, more fruitful, funnier.

My frustration lies with the constant depictions of interracial relationships and romance on screen that rehash the same tired tropes. For decades, film and television have used the interracial couple as a tool with which to make some larger commentary or observation on race relations in America—but from You People to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? to West Side Story to Jungle Fever to The Big Sick to I Love Lucy, these stories have almost always centered on whiteness. So many fewer romantic comedies have explored interracial relationships where neither partner is white (The Lovebirds is the most recent mainstream example of this).

I wonder when the interracial rom-com will expand its concerns and move beyond the question of whether white people and Black people, or white and Asian people, etc., will ever be able to truly fall in love and build lives, as if that is the most important question to ask when it comes to love and race in modern America.

Ultimately, my biggest issue with You People is not what it is, but what it could be, which isn’t (entirely) the fault of the film. Respectfully, you don’t go to Kenya Barris for nuanced explorations or elevated racial humor; you go to him for a broader, hollowly provocative, more feel-good approach. I can’t get mad at a film that doesn’t invite me to actually feel anything. The real blame must be placed on a larger entertainment landscape that keeps giving the same five people the opportunity to tell the same five stories.

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