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Kanye West’s public demand this week to have final approval over jeen-yuhs, the three-part documentary about his career, is not the first time he’s tried to have a say in the docs’ narrative.
Filmmaker Coodie Simmons recalls conversations with the rapper about jeen-yuhs when it was in earlier stages. “When it came down to making it, I had to let him know to make this film authentic, he had to step back,” says Simmons, who co-directed the doc with Chike Ozah, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “I had to take control of this narrative that God created — we didn’t create this. And he said he trusted I would do a good job on it.”
Jeen-yuhs (pronounced “genius”) is described as a “Kanye trilogy,” although the performer formally changed his name to “Ye” last year, and it premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 23, prior to hitting Netflix on Feb. 16. The films chart West’s rise in music, from young producer and wannabe rapper to Grammy winner and global superstar. The trio of films also covers the 2007 death of West’s beloved mother, Donda, the rapper’s mental health struggles and his own failed presidential bid in 2020.
THR talked to the Simmons and Ozah the day before West would take to Instagram demanding that he be given more control over the films, writing, “I must get final edit and approval on this doc before it releases on Netflix[.] Open the edit room immediately so I can be in charge of my own image.” (THR reached out to Netflix for comment but has yet to hear back.)
To Simmons’ knowledge, West had yet to see the doc, but says “his team” had. “I went out to show him one time during his birthday, but he had to go to France,” he adds.
Having first met West in the late ’90s, Simmons, a stand-up-comedian-turned-filmmaker, began following him in earnest with a camera in the early 2000s. Inspired by Hoop Dreams — the 1994 doc that follows Chicago high school students hoping to become professional basketball players — he long planned on turning West’s trajectory into a documentary. In addition to the would-be documentary, Simmons and Ozah worked with West early on, directing the music videos for records Through the Wire and Jesus Walks.
When West won the Grammy for best rap album in 2005 for his multiplatinum debut album, The College Dropout, Simmons saw it as the perfect stopping point for his documentary, with the then upstart rapper having made it to the pinnacle of critical and commercial success. “It seemed like, at that moment, it could have been over,” he remembers, but “Kanye wasn’t ready and, of course, if we did put this out then, it wouldn’t have had the same impact.”
Shortly after the Grammy win, Simmons took a significant break from filming West, which lasted over a decade. While the directors do address the rapper’s more headline-grabbing moments during this period — like West interrupting Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech in 2009, his marriage to Kim Kardashian and his endorsement of the Donald Trump presidency — they focus on the moments where Simmons and his camera were present.
Simmons and West reconnected after the musician’s public breakdown during the 2016 Saint Pablo tour, which included a Sacramento, California, show where the rapper criticized everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to Beyoncé before walking offstage. Several days later, the global tour was canceled, and the rapper was hospitalized in Los Angeles. (West was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.) When jeen-yuhs does show West and his struggles with mental health, it is through Simmons’ perspective as a concerned friend. “I always thought he was just going off. I didn’t think it was anything to do with mental health. And in our community, we don’t pay attention to mental health, so we didn’t understand it,” explains Simmons. “To lose his mom, Donda West, in public like he did, you just don’t know what that would do to a person.”
For Simmons and Ozah — whose other doc credits include A Kid From Coney Island, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the 30 for 30 doc Benji for ESPN — there was never a consideration toward omitting these moments from jeen-yuhs. Says Simmons, “We can’t go around anything that happens in life. Things happen, and we were filming it. We have to be authentic to what happened.” Simmons’ camera captured an array of moments, including intimate conversations between West and his late mother, the aftermath of the 2002 car accident that left the musician with a broken jaw and West analyzing the media coverage of his first presidential campaign rally where he cried onstage while talking about his views on abortion.
Throughout jeen-yuhs‘ three-movie arc, Pharrell, Ludacris, Mos Def, Jay-Z, Jamie Foxx, Talib Kweli and a who’s who of hip-hop legends move in and out of frame. There is even a glimpse of early-aughts Beyoncé. Still, there was more footage that had to be cut to pare the films down to their current 90-minute runtimes. A freestyle between West and rapper The Game in a parking lot after a party and a scene with the late filmmaker John Singleton proved particularly difficult to lose.
“For us, the story isn’t about Kanye. It isn’t about Coodie. It is just using them as vessels to be able to unlock your passion,” says Ozah, who sees jeen-yuhs as a series of films about overcoming adversity.
In April 2021, it was revealed that the movie would be heading to Netflix, with Billboard reporting that the streamer picked up the rights to all three films in a deal around $30 million. By the time the movie hits the streaming service next month, jeen-yuhs will have been over two decades in the making. “We feel like everything happens in God’s time. While we were [filming], we kept thinking, ‘This is the ending,’ and then it was like, ‘No, it’s not,'” says Simmons of the ever-growing narrative. “Next thing you know, he is running for president, and I grab the camera, and I am there.”
He adds, “And of course, the story is still going.”
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