If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’ve been accustomed to a meticulously curated image. From the shutter shades period all the way to the Donda era, he’s been the type of perfectionist who pushes back album release dates to accommodate for countless last minute tweaks. But when it comes to jeen-yuhs: a Kanye Trilogy, the years-in-the-making Netflix documentary, Ye hasn’t had a hand in it at all – and it shows.
In the run up to the documentary’s release, Ye has posted (and deleted) screenshots of messages between himself and the filmmakers on Instagra, along with all caps captions demanding to be let into the edit room and wanting Drake – once a foe, currently a friend – to narrate the films.
Instead, we’re offered an empathetic, honest portrait of Ye by filmmaking duo Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, who have known Ye for decades. Split into three different episodes – “Vision”, “Purpose” and “Awakening” – we’re invited into his most vulnerable and defining moments over the years. We’re in the room when he’s told his jaw may never be the same after his near-fatal 2002 car crash, and we’re there as he fights to get taken seriously by Roc-A-Fella and when his late mother, Donda West, offers him nuggets of wisdom.
Ahead of the release of jeen-yuhs, I spoke to filmmakers Simmons and Ozah about taking creative control and the legacy they hope to leave behind.
VICE: Hi Coodie and Chike! You’ve been filming for almost 20 years and had to turn over 300 hours of footage into three episodes. What was the process of creating the narrative that we see?
Chike Ozah: Over the past five years we’ve really been students of film, mainly storytelling, as we've been embarking on more screenplay writing. For us, making this six years ago, probably would have been a different type of film. It might have been more of a traditional-style documentary. But for us, we really wanted to make it closer to a narrative structure, so we picked a hero's journey, like a non-traditional archetypal style film and it made it easier for us to deal with this footage and once we planted that seed with our editors Max Allman and Jason Harper, they were locked in on board and made it easy for us to place it all together.
Why did you feel that now is the best time for a Kanye documentary?
Coodie Simmons: Well, I say everything happens in God's time. If it was supposed to happen earlier, it would have happened. In 2006, we were approached, a deal was on the table to make it happen, but Kanye wasn’t ready for the world. It was at the beginning of his career and he had a lot to do. So fast forward, me and Kanye separated as he got bigger and wanted to work with other people. Common put us back together in 2014 and then Kanye called me and Chike after that and he said, “I want you guys to be my voice”. We're not speakers, we're filmmakers; we’re visual. So we knew that we should start and putting this film together so people can see the real Kanye that I know and came to love.
But that didn't happen because people had other things they wanted him to do other than that. It was almost like, to me, he was crying out for help because right after that he had a breakdown on the Saint Pablo Tour. God kept bringing us back together, and certain things you just can't write. The first time anybody ever saw him after the breakdown was with me and everyone was like, “Oh, he's happy he has seen his friends”. I’m more than just a friend. I'm a brother [to Kanye], and Chike and I did his first music video. But you know, there’s certain things you can't write: that he changed his name to Ye now; he was talking about that in 2000. It’s all these different things that just show that he is moving in the right direction.
There are a lot of really personal parts in the film; from Kanye crying at the dentist to very tender moments with his late mother. Was Kanye at all included in the editing process and was there any pushback from him on some of these moments going in?
Simmons: No, there was no pushback and Kanye wasn't involved with the edit. You know we’re Creative Control [the name of their business] and we realised from doing other projects that if we lose that, then we lose the narrative that needs to be told. Some people want this to be a tabloid documentary about Kanye. It could [have been] a glamourised documentary about Kanye that he might have wanted – but it's not that. We had to tell the story that we wanted.
It's not bias or anything, this is what God has planned for us. I was trying to share the project with [Kanye] for months but it never happened. I showed him the sizzle reel and I told him, ‘Trust me, like, I trust you”. But further on, I let Kanye know that the way you have to watch this film, is with everyone that was there at the beginning with you, that loves you genuinely, that don't want nothing from you. I know that once we all get together and he watches the film, I know it's gonna be really emotional for him because it was emotional for all of us that was on his journey. We would be crying together, laughing together, hugging and embracing each other.
Your other films feature other prominent Black figures in different walks of life. Do you find it's important for you to document your own history?
Ozah: For me personally, it’s just the importance of controlling the narrative with our culture. Part of our whole journey with storytelling is using it as a tool to create empathy. A lot of stories we're telling; they’re for us, but they're also for other cultures to have a greater understanding of our culture.
What is the legacy that you hope jeen-yuhs will have?
Ozah: It would be amazing if it has the legacy of something that you just continue to watch, like [how] there's books that we continue to read just to keep as a blueprint for life. It would be something that you tap into, or you put somebody else on because they’re stuck in this routine and they’re not moving in their passion… like, “watch this, maybe that can help you feel better, give you the comfort, the faith that you need to tap into your passion and market”, you know? It can become that resource material you continue to gaze over years to come.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy launches on Netflix on 16th February.