Race relations in the United States are nothing to laugh about these days.
But, with Netflix’s romantic comedy “You People,” Jonah Hill and Kenya Barris are asking you to do just that “(which will be available for viewing on Friday) is about a nice Jewish boy named Ezra (Hill) who falls in love with a proud Black girl named Amira (Lauren London).
The couple gets along, whether they’re canoodling under the sheets or talking about urban music and streetwear. What about their respective parents? Not at all. This is where the tension and comedy in this modern-day take on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” arise.
“We knew some things were going to be inflammatory,” says Barris, creator of ABC’s “Black-ish” and co-writer of the new film with Hill. “As a result, our actors had to be 10 toes down in (their characters’) shoes.”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny play Ezra’s overly sensitive parents. Amira’s parents, played coolly by Eddie Murphy and Nia Long, are devout Muslims who can barely keep their displeasure at bay.
When the happy couple finally gathers both sets of parents for a get-to-know-you dinner, Murphy and Louis-Dreyfus demonstrate their considerable comedy chops, which they honed as cast members on “Saturday Night Live” in the early 1980s.
“This was so much fun because I haven’t spent much time with Eddie since, well, I was going to say college,” says the “Seinfeld” legend. “But I meant ‘SNL,’ which was kind of like going to grad school,” she explains. “It was sort of like a school reunion. He’s such a charming person, and he knows how to be funny, and we had a great time pinging off each other.”
According to Barris, writing lines that made Murphy laugh was “like scoring on Michael Jordan,” and Murphy’s decision to play Nation of Islam devotee Akbar Mohammed in a tightly controlled manner “only adds to his performance’s power.”
Mutual adoration Hill and Barris made a film about their love of Los Angeles.
Ultimately, “”You People” was conceived as a “love letter to Los Angeles and culture and love itself,” according to Barris, who notes that despite growing up in largely Black and white areas of Los Angeles, they share cultural touch points nurtured by that entertainment-fueled melting pot.
When Barris and Hill first met, the two quickly became mutual fanboys, according to Barris. “Jonah is one of the top three improv guys in the world,” says Barris.
Hill and Barris met up a few years back to discuss a collaboration, which “turned into a three-hour talk about relationships, kids and LA.” A film concept was born.
“I guess in some ways, despite the fact that we started on this three years ago, our story is about where we are now as a culture, with Blacks and Jews in particular competing in an Olympics to see who has it the worst,” says Barris. “But we felt the key with the film was to be honest rather than evocative.”
When you bring different cultures together, the honest result can be both evocative and provocative, according to Long.
Fatima Mohammed, her character, is a “stand by your man” wife who supports her husband while trying to ensure the happiness of her daughter.
“You get groups with opposing practises, and it’s going to create a very funny situation from top to bottom,” Long says. “But, in the end, I believe we have more in common than we realise.”
For the role, Louis-Dreyfus channelled ‘well-meaning’ acquaintances.
According to Louis-Dreyfus, “You People” is intended to entertain rather than lecture.
“The film takes the romantic comedy trope and layers racial and cultural conflicts on top of it, pushing the story to new heights,” she says. “Because the subject matter is so serious, it’s very powerful that it’s done comedically.”
Louis-Dreyfus channelled “white people on the west side of LA who are hyper well-intentioned, with hyper in all caps, in a way that becomes offensive” for her character, Shelley Cohen.
Louis-Dreyfus says it was important that the Cohens came across as “happy in their marriage,” despite their cultural myopia.
“Look, we’re not trying to teach lessons here,” she says at the end. “We want people to be entertained, and it may also open up a new line of communication between people who are different. That would be great.”