A version of this story about “jeen-yuhs” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
When Kanye West (or “Ye,” as he now styles himself) announced on social media in January that he expected the filmmakers of the documentary “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” to give him final cut, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, friends of Kanye’s from Chicago who’d been accumulating footage for nearly 20 years. After all, they were preparing for a version of the film back in 2006 when the hip-hop artist and producer, in the first flush of fame, announced that they couldn’t release that film because he didn’t want to be seen in unguarded moments.
“I read his message on my birthday that he wanted to shut the movie down,” Coodie said, laughing. (The series’ directing credits read simply “Coodie & Chike.”) “I almost fainted, but at the same time, people were coming to me with a birthday cake. That’s when God talked to me and said, ‘Dude, why are you tripping on this? You’re going to be good.’”
Added Chike, “It was a feeling of disappointment, but we knew nothing was going to stop the film from coming out.”
And it did come out — first at Sundance and then on Netflix, in the same three-part, near five-hour version that Coodie and Chike had completed. (Ever mercurial, Kanye made his demand once and then let it drop.) “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” is an affectionate series but not an authorized one, drawing from footage that ranges from moments with Kanye when he was a successful producer who couldn’t get his own career off the ground to the heights of his stardom in the 2000s and the troubled aftermath, including a rant in the Dominican Republic in which Kanye seemed so unstable that Coodie stopped recording.
“I felt like my camera could have been instigating a little bit,” he said. “I had never experienced Kanye that way. I used to see it on TV, and I thought it was part of the act. But then to see it live on my camera, I knew it wasn’t for me to document, it was for me to pay attention. I was getting nervous for him in his life, you know?”
But Coodie still knew that the footage he did shoot should end up in the film. “Sometimes you gotta show certain things,” he said. “Chike and our editors and I all thought that was important to see.”
What else was important to see was one of the big challenges of “jeen-yuhs,” which had more than 300 hours of footage to draw from. The film began when Coodie was hanging out with Kanye in Chicago in the early ’90s, when the artist was best known as a producer. “Seeing how talented and how charismatic he was and how he loved the camera, I knew he was a perfect muse for a documentary,” Coodie said. “And I believed in him 100%, you know? He was so different. And when I heard ‘Jesus Walks,’ I knew he was gonna do exactly what he planned to do, which was to win Grammys and be a superstar.”
“It was obvious to me that he was destined for something very large,” added Chike. “We really felt like this was a movement, like this was going to lead to something bigger.”
Coodie’s initial inspiration was Steve James’ four-hour 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams,” and he envisioned the film starting with Kanye’s early days and climaxing with his inevitable arrival as a Grammy-winning superstar. But when Kayne blocked that from happening in 2006, the filmmakers set the doc aside for years until they could begin filming again.
That gave them even more footage to draw from and led to inevitable disappointments as they just couldn’t find room for some of their favorite sequences. Coodie wishes he had room for a conversation between Kanye and the late director John Singleton; Chike wanted to find a place for a physical altercation between Kanye and another Chicago rapper that showed just how high the stakes were in the early years. But eventually, they both had to admit that neither of those fit.
“We put together the story from beginning to end, and it first came out to nine hours,” Coodie said. “And that means there were 320-something hours that we didn’t use, even in that version.
“We just needed to tell the story — and we have empathy for what people went through during the pandemic, but it actually helped shut me down. ’Cause I’m a party animal, you know what I mean? But in the pandemic, I had time to really look at the footage, all day, and think about nothing else. Everybody was stuck in the house for most of the year, and that was a blessing in disguise.”