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‘Jeen-Yuhs’ Took Two Decades to Make — Camera-Ready Success Came Quicker

Hot directors Clarence "Coodie" Simmons and Chike Ozah spent years documenting one of the most famous music stars on the planet, but their career plan was always bigger than one man.

In 2019, filmmakers Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah, better known as Coodie and Chike, walked into the midtown Manhattan offices of Time Studios and dumped two duffel bags and some shoeboxes full of mini DV tapes on the conference table. The mountain of footage was the product of more than 20 years in which Simmons had been filming his friend Kanye West, starting in 1998 in Chicago, where West was then an up-and-coming hip-hop producer and Simmons a stand-up comic who hosted a cable access show called Channel Zero. That day in 2019, Simmons and Ozah hoped to find a backer to edit the tapes into a narrative that would encompass West’s journey from a fresh-faced wannabe to the mercurial, globally recognized figure he is today. After hours of watching the footage with the duo, the president of Time Studios, Ian Orefice, was stunned. “He was like, ‘Yo, we in,’ ” Simmons says.

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To Orefice, who runs the film and TV production division of the Time publishing company, the tape was raw and revealing, with extraordinary access to one of the most controversial figures in pop culture. “Coodie saw a genius in Kanye that only Kanye saw,” Orefice says. “They captured some of the most unique footage on one of the most fascinating stories. Everyone in the world has an opinion on Kanye West, and even the most diehard fans didn’t know the story.”

Time supplied finishing funds and legal support, and what resulted was an intimate docuseries, Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, which sold to Netflix for $30 million in 2021. Upon its premiere at the Sundance Film festival in January, Jeen-yuhs proved to resonate much more deeply than a standard music biopic, framed as it was on West and Simmons’ friendship and their intertwining but ultimately disparate paths. “The footage doesn’t lie,” Simmons says. “We had to tell a real, authentic story. We couldn’t hide behind anything.”

If you can become an overnight sensation after working for 20 years on a project, then that’s what Simmons and Ozah are now. This spring, they signed with UTA and took on new directing gigs, including an as-yet-unannounced scripted feature and a high school basketball documentary, The All Americans: The Games That Changed the Game. They’re also producing other filmmakers’ work, including the Time- and HBO-backed documentary Katrina Babies, directed by New Orleans filmmaker Edward Buckles Jr., which will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in June.

“These guys have a real sense of what interests an audience, what’s important about a subject, and a brilliant way of presenting it,” says UTA motion picture literary and talent partner Rich Klubeck, part of the team that now represents Simmons and Ozah. “They’re very genuine, down-to-earth guys who are in touch with the culture, the politics we’re living in. They’re highly observant. They’re paying attention and they’re natural storytellers.”

Simmons, 51, and Ozah, 44, met in the early 2000s at MTV, where Ozah was producing motion graphics, and they teamed up to direct and produce West’s first music video, “Through the Wire,” in 2003. “I’m more from a visual perspective, more the art direction aspect of things,” says Ozah, who got his BFA in fine arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “Coodie, having a background in comedy and having to perform onstage, he’s impeccable with timing, and knowing when we have to hit certain beats. We have a perfect hybrid, because he can really focus on story and I get a chance to impose visual aspects and curate the right team for us for sound design and those kinds of things.” After “Through the Wire,” the duo went on to direct more music videos for West, as well as Pitbull, Mos Def, Erykah Badu and Lupe Fiasco. In 2007, they formed their New York-based production company, Creative Control; in 2012 they directed an ESPN 30 for 30 film, Benji, on the tragic death of a high school basketball player; and in 2015 they made a Muhammad Ali documentary for BET. “We mess with people that mess with us, you know what I mean?” Ozah says. “We work with everybody that believes in us and that we believe in.” Before the pandemic, they ran Creative Control out of a WeWork space. Now they run it from their homes, with Simmons in Harlem and Ozah in Jersey City, unless they’re in an editing room together.

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A young Kanye West in Jeen-yuhs: “He finally told me thank you,” says Simmons. Courtesy of Netflix

On Jeen-yuhs, they had to make difficult storytelling choices and navigate their relationship with a highly unpredictable subject. One key creative decision was to include Simmons in the series, onscreen and in a personal voiceover where he ponders his deteriorating relationship with the rapper. When West and Simmons first partnered, West was eager to be the subject of a documentary, and over the years the two had discussed finally releasing the project, but West was reluctant. Two days before the Sundance premiere, West took to Instagram demanding final cut on the documentary. The producers at Time had a saying whenever the project hit this kind of speed bump, Orefice says: “In Coodie we trust.” Ultimately Simmons and Ozah retained their creative control and West settled down, attending the premiere and giving the project his blessing. “He finally told me ‘thank you,’ ” Simmons says. “That felt amazing.” Of their relationship now, Simmons says, “I check in on him. I pray for Kanye every day.”

The next steps for Simmons and Ozah involve shepherding young talent, in hopes that they’ll face fewer barriers than they did, and pushing forward their scripted careers, which was the goal from the beginning. “We fell into docs as a way to prove that we can tell longform narrative,” Ozah says. “Even though we had success in music videos, nobody was trying to trust us with a feature film. We had to become students. We really weren’t ready then, anyway.” But after 20 years, “We see ourselves as making an impact the same way that the Coen brothers have, or Spike Lee, or Martin Scorsese,” Ozah says. “This whole journey’s preparing us to be able to execute at that level.”

This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.