Kanye West sits in a house overlooking a beach, flanked on either side by potential real estate partners. “Have you guys ever been locked up in handcuffs and put into a hospital because your brain was too big for your skull?” he asks, moving the conversation swiftly away from real estate. It’s a moment captured in Jeen-yuhs, a three-part Netflix documentary about the artist’s rise to fame directed by Coodie and Chike. While the first two episodes captured his ascent, the third rushes into the present, depicting West just a few years after he began speaking publicly about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The scene, captured by Coodie, continues for a few minutes, until the director interjects with revealing narration.
“I had never captured this side of Kanye before,” says Coodie in the docuseries, who had, by that point, dedicated years of his life to capturing West on camera. “And it just didn’t feel right to keep filming, so I cut the camera off.”
And so he does. Cutting to black becomes something of a motif in the third installment, which deals largely with West’s mental health struggles and shows him going on tangents. In that beachside conversation, West also talks about taking bipolar medication so he can “translate alien into English,” and how he struggles to communicate his truth in a “world of lies.” Coodie, who began filming West before he made The College Dropout, frequently finds himself in the uncomfortable position of documenting West making troubling statements and wagering how long he can keep filming before it becomes morally unbearable.
There are other moments like this. Coodie films West the day after his infamous political rally in South Carolina, in which he discussed abortion, criticized Harriet Tubman, and started crying onstage. Coodie goes to visit him the next day in Wyoming, capturing West going on another impassioned rant, until, again, the video feed cuts out. The very next scene shows Coodie speaking off-the-cuff, directly to the camera, reminding viewers that even though West is worshipped the world over, he’s “a real person, and he’s going through something.” It’s clearly an emotional topic for the director, who is struggling with how to mediate his role as both a documentarian and a friend.
There are many ways to make a documentary. Had the shaping and camera operation of Jeen-yuhs been in another filmmaker’s hands, the camera might never have cut to black, nor would it have turned around to bring the filmmaker into the narrative. Bearing witness is the guiding principle for many dyed-in-the-wool documentarians, who will take that credo to whatever extreme they find necessary. The great Frederick Wiseman, who has captured all manner of shocking human behavior in his sprawling films about institutions, has said he only worried about crossing the line once in his career: while making the 1970 documentary Hospital, he turned the camera off on a subway worker who was dying in the emergency ward. Years later, Wiseman said he wishes he had captured the moment.
But Jeen-yuhs is not a warts-and-all look at the life of Kanye West, nor is it a stark examination of mental health struggles and how they may or may not be influenced by fame. It’s a documentary about a guy who watched his friend become a global superstar. That’s the spirit in which Coodie and Chike frame the docuseries, a narrative tool that embraces flattery and subjectivity. Occasionally, Coodie rattles off his own life highlights alongside West’s, telling the viewer about his career achievements and the birth of his daughter. At times, especially in the start of the third installment, the docuseries is entirely about Coodie as he reckons with being left out of West’s inner circle once the rapper becomes a pop-cultural phenomenon.
Still, the glimpses Coodie and Chike provide in Jeen-yuhs are both revealing and heartbreaking. Outside of Jeen-yuhs, West himself has spoken openly about his struggles with bipolar disorder. “When you’re in this state, you’re hyper-paranoid about everything,” he said in an interview with David Letterman in 2019. “Everyone now is an actor. Everything’s a conspiracy. You see everything. You feel the government is putting chips in your head. You feel you’re being recorded. You feel all of these things.” The third chapter of Jeen-Yuhs is, however, perhaps the most unvarnished look at West’s lived experience—rendered even more sympathetically by the previous two installments, which offer a comprehensive look at how West arrived at this state. The sympathy is aided by the documentary’s point of view: that of a protective friend, deciding just how much the outside world gets to see.
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