The filmmakers behind jeen-yuhs on the ups and downs of 20 years with Kanye West
The director duo spoke about their long-awaited Kanye film, FaceTiming the rapper before he visited Trump, and Ye's reaction to the doc.
Coodie and Chike believe in the power of love. The response to their work jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy has been uniformly positive and even rapturous in a way that is striking, considering how unwieldy and polarizing their subject is. That feedback is a testament, they say, to the force of love, force and to creating something out of pure and positive intent.
Then again, when I speak to them over Zoom recently, only the first two acts of the trilogy have been released, treading the ground that comes before the waves of controversy that West’s two-decade stardom have been defined by. The first two parts have been praised for their raw, visceral, at times tragic footage of a young Ye leading up to his debut album The College Dropout, when Coodie first began following the promising producer in Chicago in the early 2000s. But the trilogy’s most uneven and tricky section comes in act iii: Awakening, the section that all viewers know is coming and will at times want to turn away from the most.
Yet Coodie and Chike, who, as the second film captures, first joined forces in directing West’s “Through the Wire” music video and have made music videos and films together ever since, still have no fear about how the third act will land. “There's no way you could take anything negative from this film, in my opinion,” says Chike, who also calls the final part his favorite in its reflection of life’s complexity.
At times the directing pair answer with their own kind of vague spiritual platitudes (“Don’t let your imagination get in the way of God’s manifestation”; “Jesus directs and God writes”), a way of speaking that is possibly as much reflective of their faith as it is a method to protect their subject and avoid participating in the complicated and exacerbating public psychoanalysis of Kanye West. Some of the most startling moments in act iii: Awakening come when Coodie decides to cut the cameras when West appears to be unwell and in a manic state. The filmmakers say they were not making a “Kanye West documentary,” and in part three, you won’t find concrete answers to the how and why of the unstable god-figure Ye has cast himself as.
“There's definitely whys that have opened up in (act) three that we're just not gonna have the answers to, but the answer might reveal itself five years from now,” Chike says. The co-directors spoke to Mic about the making of their long-gestating film, sending what became the film’s ending to Ye right before he visited Trump in the Oval Office, and what Ye’s reaction was in the theater after he made a surprise appearance at the Los Angeles premiere of the first act.
The reaction so far to the first two films has been strongly positive, but also is indicative of this emotional rift for his fan base — seeing him so young is emotional not only because of his innocence, but because you can so clearly see the distance between who he was then and who he is now. Do you see a kind of tragedy or heartbreak in these films?
Chike: To me, the heartbreak that I see in Kanye is maybe heartbreak that's still attached to his loss of his mother. I feel like he still carries that to today. I mean, he's still thinking about it, clearly — his last two albums were Donda.
Coodie: Well what you see in act iii, that same person that I put the camera on at the beginning, it is really the same person I'm around (now). We separated for some years and I didn't see him. And I started thinking he was Yeezy. I didn't know. I had a joke in the film: I knew Kanye, but I never met Yeezy. But then when I was around him, it was the same Kanye to the point where I forget that he’s a huge superstar. We’re in the store, like we used to be, shopping and we leave out the stores — a hundred people outside with cameras. I'm like, oh, shoot, who am I with? Oh man, it’s Yeezy, I guess. But when I'm around he’s the same person. We laugh and joke, we talk serious about God and life and living in the now and the present. That's what I get when I'm around them. And then when I'm not, and I see things on TV, I'll be wondering, too. It is somewhat heartbreaking to see certain things, even Taylor Swift and how that got out on him. It was heartbreaking, yet I know God got his back.
Coodie, you’ve said that Ye didn’t want the documentary to come out after The College Dropout because he didn’t want people to see his real self because he was “acting” amid the newfound fame. You say you still see the same Ye now, and his public persona is in fact characterized by being his uncensored self. Do you think he was actually playing a character throughout the years?
Coodie: When he was being this superstar, Yeezy or Louis Vuitton Don, I feel like (that’s) a persona that he was creating. But as far as the person that he is — he is that person that speaks his mind. He learned that from his mom and his dad, to speak his mind and don't be afraid if you believe in something. So the acting is more this stage performance, or maybe some media things that he might do. Some things I thought was an act when he would do certain things, like when he would rant — they call it rant, but we call it going off — when he go on stage and talk for a minute, I used to think that was an act until we found he had some mental health issues, which I didn't know.
So much of the first two films is of him in the studio. But there is a stark shift that seems to say something about what stardom did to him if you compare the energy and the people around him in these rooms in these first two films to those in the third. In a couple scenes in Wyoming, there seems to be a tension among the people that surround him that don’t know how to act or react or say something. Do you sense that difference while filming?
Coodie: Yeah, definitely. I see the people that's around him who are employees of him. When that's your boss, it's a certain thing that you have to do, protocols that you have to abide by. But with me, I'm just a friend and I'm not getting paid from him. So I'm able to say what I want to say and don't care. I already been kicked out, so who cares if I get kicked out again. I care about him as a brother, not as no artist. Like most people might look at him like, oh, this an artist, we gotta keep cause he’s making us a lot of money.
When we was in the studio in Wyoming, he was going through a whole lot. See, that's the thing. People are not the same when you're going through certain things, regardless of whoever you are, a giant like Kanye or the regular person living life. You go through certain things, you're not going to be the same. That's one thing people don't understand — that we are human beings. Him losing his mom, and doing it in the public eye.
Chike: Kanye and I both were raised predominantly by our mothers. And they did far and beyond what I think was even expected. My mother sacrificed everything to make sure that I was able to maximize and reach my goals and dreams. I could only imagine losing this right now, what that would feel like. So imagine losing that younger, I can't imagine what that would do to your psyche. I'm not using that as an excuse for any actions that people might disagree with for Kanye, but you gotta empathize with that.
How do you think things would be different for Kanye if his mother were still alive?
Coodie: That's one thing that you can only assume what would be. Everything happened for a reason, and that's how you have to look at life.
Chike: It’s all perspective as well. It’s like, how do you perceive the bad? … This film is about taking these moments into people's lives, regardless of what good decisions they made or bad decisions they made, we can still piece elements from their lives to create a piece of work that can be positive, and that can impact people's life in a great way.
The Saint Pablo Tour in 2016, during which he was hospitalized, seemed to be a turning point. He reached out to you before the tour, and you’ve said you thought he was crying out for help. What was the conversation like and did you sense that something was going on?
Coodie: He flew me and Chike to Calabasas to talk. He was expressing that he needed a voice. He needed somebody to help him with that. And we were like, okay, well, this might be the time to do the documentary. We put together the whole (concept), which we called “jeen-yuhs.” Our treatment was a little bit different than how we actually made the movies, but that was the start. And then when his people that he was working with got involved, it went to nothing. I mean, everybody was excited. And then all of a sudden, it was like they had other agendas for Kanye and it wasn’t it. So we got put on the back burner again, and when that happened and the Saint Pablo tour happened … I just felt a certain energy watching that. I'm like, I gotta be with him. I have to be close to him right now. That's why I feel like he was crying out for help. Everything (about the documentary talks) happened the way it happened. And then after (Saint Pablo), it was like confirmation to what I was thinking, that I was right about what I was thinking. I couldn't be day-to-day with Ye. To be there as a brother, I would've wanted to, but we all have lives. I just felt like it wouldn't have went as bad as it went if we would've really been there.
Some of the most intense and unsettling moments in the film are when Kanye appears to be manic and you cut the cameras off, in the Dominican Republic first and then later on in Wyoming. What is happening in those scenes and why did you choose to turn the camera off?
Coodie: I (saw) the switch of him going into, I guess, what you would consider a character. I'm not even sure it’s really him, but I never captured that moment — I always seen it on TV with him doing any events or comparing himself to Walt Disney or whatever. That energy never came through my lens. He started doing the things that I would see on TV. I'm like, I need to listen. Cause I wasn't there to film for the documentary, I was there for him as a brother.
It felt like my camera could be initiating things as well. When people know a camera’s on, they’re a lot different than what they would be without a camera, some people. Not saying Kanye, I think he got used to my camera just being on. But at that moment, I feel like it might be initiating some things as well. So I said, let me pay attention. Definitely (in the scenes with) Justin Bieber, that’s where I really felt that I was initiating something. And I had to turn the camera off.
I’ll say this, you're not supposed to drink when you take whatever medicine he was taking. And (in the Dominican Republic) he had a cocktail that day. And then that started happening with the guys. I'm like, oh wait a minute. And then he went back to the bar to get another drink. I did go up right to him and say, “Yo, Ye, I don't think you're supposed to be drinking, cause you took that medicine.” And he was like, you right. And the bartender took the drink away, and then we wind up leaving from that point. So I did step in and intervene right there because I'm like, okay, I know what is not supposed to happen.
Were there conversations you had with him after these incidents about what was happening and how to deal with it?
Coodie: I’m not a doctor, so I can't give him too much advice about what he should do and how he should do it as far as mental health. But what I do is I talk to him about God and I talk to him about meditation and living in the now and things that's helping me mentally navigate this life. So I'm mainly talking that way, not like: ‘oh Kanye, you should probably do this. Or you should probably do that.’
Tell me about the ending of the film that replays the scene in which Donda tells Ye about the giant that looks in the mirror. Were you sending a message to Ye himself?
Coodie: Before we even started working on the doc, I was licensing some footage for Hip Hop: The Songs that Shook America, and I came across that tape. And the first thing (Donda) said was, “There’s something important I wanted to talk to you about Kanye.” And I'm like, wait a minute. I don't remember that happening. And this was like a week before he went to the Oval Office with Trump. And I just so happened, cause of Common, had Kanye’s email.
“When the Saint Pablo tour happened … I just felt a certain energy watching that. I'm like, I gotta be with him. I have to be close to him right now.” — Coodie
So I uploaded it and sent it to him like, and my subject was, “Your mother wanted me to send this to you.” I'm like, did she say that then? Because I did her funeral presentation. I don't remember seeing that. I'm like, oh, is she saying it right now? That alone was a testament of: Donda is with us. She wanted me to send it to him now.
He FaceTimed me the day before he went into the Oval Office. He FaceTimed me (saying), “I couldn't believe in a million years that she said that.” He knew where it was coming from. The next day, he on TV and I'm like, oh, this is crazy.
How much has Ye seen of the film, and have you spoken directly to Ye about it?
Coodie: Me and Chike was downstairs in the reception. And he comes in, they said he came in looking mad. They sit him right next to my sister and my daughter, Ivy, just so happened. (My sister) said, as it was going, he started laughing. Then he’s turning around and pointing, ‘Yo!’ Looking at people. And they said his hood just kept going down further and further till he was just totally relaxed. And at the end, he finally gave me the props and Chike the props. Just seeing that, just brought back memories. But I don't know if he's seen (part) two.