How the New DMX Documentary Reveals the Many Layers of Earl Simmons

DMX’s legacy is steeped in the kind of honesty that just “is,” and Christopher Frierson’s new documentary Don’t Try To Understand embodies that. The film, which debuted last night as part of HBO’s Music Box docuseries, gives a glimpse at the late music icon as he came home in early 2019 and sought to get his music career and life back on track. 

Cameras followed DMX everywhere between January 2019 and March 2020 — to shows, record label meetings, and though the streets. Frierson got a firsthand glimpse of what the director calls X’s “amazing” connection with the people who love him, from tearful ciphers in Yonkers projects to conversations about the gospel with fans. 

Frierson tells Complex that he’s a longtime fan of the dog and wanted to tell a story about him that gets past the salacious exploitation the late rapper dealt with in his career. The team behind Don’t Try To Understand captured the full scope of X as an artist, as well as Earl Simmons as a human being.

Anyone familiar with X’s music and career knows he had his demons, and the documentary shows those moments as well. Frierson told X that they planned to capture everything, “warts and all,” and he says the rapper was fine with it before filming (and after seeing the finished product in early 2020). Fierson says these scenes aren’t meant to evoke a particular emotion, but to simply show viewers what it really was with X, and have them draw their own conclusions. 

“The moments that are the ‘uglier moments,’ they become less ugly and more just the reality of the situation in his life,” Frierson says about the filming process. Eventually, X became genuine friends with the team, as evidenced by him calling them family during the documentary’s tear-jerking final scene.

Frierson is grateful, not just for the documentary, but for X inspiring him to take on his own demons. We spoke with him about being around the rap icon, an original ideation of the doc (which thankfully didn’t happen), and more. The conversation, lightly edited for clarity, is below. 

What made you want to tell DMX’s story?
I’ve always been really interested in characters and people [whose] narratives have been defined more by the media and outside forces than their own. I remember the day I got Flesh of My Flesh when I was 16. Ever since then, I’ve had a connection with Earl, and DMX, and his music. 

Over the years, during his down periods, I think the salaciousness of some of the things that he’s experienced [have] been exploited and become his persona. That sort of thing where you live long enough to see yourself become the villain type situation. He’s been maligned to a certain point, which I think overshadowed the message of what his music was. I worked at Mass Appeal production company in development, and I really wanted to tell his story and had an opportunity there. That’s how it started.

But long story short, how we got here is: At Mass, we used to have rappers coming through all the time, so I wrote a deck, pitched it, and everybody at the company was like, “This is fine.” It’s just one in another of the millions of decks that you got to do. He came through. I wasn’t there that day, but it was the day he got locked up for the tax thing in like early 2018. Over the course of the year, while he was in jail, I became friends with his manager Pat, and we were trying to make this thing happen, trying to contact the jail [and] the feds were not having it. When we found out he was going to be released in early January 2019, I convinced my boss at the time to give us a little bit of money. And I grabbed two guys from our office and we drove down to West Virginia. So that scene when he comes out of the jail, he’s like, “Hey, hey, hey,” that’s the first time I met him.

Oh, wow.
I talked to him very briefly through the prison video phone thing once, but he didn’t really know that this was happening. Because when he comes out, in the film, you hear him go, “Oh, you guys weren’t fucking around,” because he sees the cameras. So, I hopped in a Suburban and two days later, we were in New York. During that time period, we got to know each other a little bit and sort of set off on the journey.

You said that at one point you were trying to communicate with the jail about the documentary. What were your plans with that ideation of the doc?
I mean, at that stage, I didn’t really, really visualize what it was going to look like, but I knew that a jail interview could be a good starting point. Also, I just wanted to get started with it because, in this business, opportunities are very fleeting. So my whole thing was like, let’s just go and see each other, meet each other. Maybe if we can bring cameras in, that’s cool. If not, that’s cool, but [it was an idea] to get things going and it didn’t work out and I think [that’s] for the best.

Why do you say that?
Because, at the end of the day, I wasn’t really into the jail interview thing because that really fits into that box and that narrative just visually speaking. So, it was great to have that not happen. Having a sit-down interview with Earl locked up, in hindsight, wouldn’t have been what we wanted. I don’t know if we would’ve even used it actually, but us meeting that day when he got out and driving to New York, I think that laid the foundation for the trust that we established with each other, which I think would’ve been harder to do when he was going through it down there.

Image via HBO

What was that initial meeting like? 
I mean, it was crazy, because you’re sitting there, you’re watching someone come out of prison, reconnecting with all their friends. At the same time, this is someone who you admire, you love their music. So you’re a fan and you’re trying to navigate [different feelings]. I think every filmmaker or journalist goes through this with a subject. So it was interesting to just be sitting in a car with Earl, the moments he got out and just the thoughts that are going through his mind. 

I didn’t really ask him that many questions at the very beginning. It’s one of those moments where someone’s thought process and what they say lets you know so much more about them than if you were to talk about what’s happening in the moment. 

I would imagine when I have kids, the moment afterwards, [someone] just watching my reaction and how I interact with the world in a life-changing moment like that would say a lot about who I am as a person. So that was cool, and then as we started, he sort of settled down, being free, and went and changed. He was calling everybody, and we got back on the road. We just kind of kicked it, which is the kind of the way I work generally speaking, and just talked, or didn’t talk. It wasn’t an interview. And I don’t think he was necessarily expecting that. And that’s where that trust comes in.

Some of the most powerful scenes for me were when he was in Yonkers or just outside with people, speaking about the gospel. How many moments like that were there? What was it like for you and the crew in those moments?
You can’t really quantify it because at a certain point it’s just Earl, and that’s what made him such an amazing person. To jump back a little bit, I think this answers the question, too. It’s in those moments of silence and thought that say so much throughout. Or when he is in School Street at the projects, there isn’t a need for me as a filmmaker to interject, but you know you’re getting more information and you’re learning more about a person. 

We spent a year with him and every time something like that would happen, it’s like another layer of the onion is peeled back and you’re learning more about this person who’s now your friend. But he’s so open. He allows those layers to be pulled back without any prompting, which is what I was hoping the film does. It sort of unfolds in a way where you’re learning, as I did, how he processes the world or thinks about the world.

Can you speak to peeling back the onion, when it came to your thought process during post-production, and balancing scenes that showcase every side of who he is? What was that process like for you, especially after his passing?
First and foremost, we shot the film during 2019. It was finished around March 2020. So we were done, and when he passed a year later, there wasn’t really that much consideration as to, “Oh, we have to change things now because he passed.” I always thought about this as not a retrospective, not an A to Z film about his career. I just wanted to capture a year, a time capsule in a man’s life. I think that he’s experiencing so much and he’s being bombarded with so much stimulus and how he handles it within this one year, that you don’t really need to go super far back to explain everything. I think that in this year, the audience can glean what they think about him from those experiences.

But also, to the point of what we wanted the audience to see and their preconceived notions of Earl—or if they didn’t know him at all—he and I were pretty upfront about “we’re going to show everything” without things that would get him in trouble or anything. He was game to do the warts-and-all approach, because I think one of the things that’s really special about him is that’s how he lives his life. He’s unapologetically him and he’s aware. There’s not any gotcha moments. He’s aware when the cameras are rolling and he’s aware when they’re not rolling and he’s the same.

Me and him talked about it. I was like, “I’m not going to sugarcoat anything, bro. Like, if some crazy shit happens, it happens, and then we’ll talk about it afterward.” But he was cool, and I think it’s because so many people have taken his image and done untruths or fitted into the narrative that they wanted to portray him as. Whether it be “the drug addict,” “the criminal,” “the angry Black man,” ‘the guy who fights dogs and smokes crack all the time.” So many portrayals of him fit into those easy boxes, and he was down to show everything because that’s more cerebral and it’s more complicated than those things.

Towards the end of the documentary, there’s a moment where DMX misses a major interview day. Can you take me into how hectic that moment was for you and the crew?
I mean, we had an idea that maybe things were not going that great, but we didn’t know. And so that scene in which he doesn’t show, we realized throughout that day it was more than just a rapper thing or musician thing how they show up late always. We realized it was something more serious. In the film, you see us calling people and no one really wants to say, or doesn’t know. And so we were concerned, but we did have the knowledge that he does do that. He does isolate when drugs are involved. So, we kind of just figured that’s what was up.

We were alarmed, but I think at the end of the day—and he said this when he saw the film—the fact that we shot it works. It’s an example of something that happens when you’re dealing with substances and substance abuse. And I’ve been open about it, I am a recovering alcoholic. I remember when I used to drink, I used to disappear, because you don’t want to hurt the people that’s around you or the people that care about you. It’s better to just be completely alone. And that’s what he was doing during those time periods.

You said earlier that you told him you would talk afterwards if there were uglier moments during filming. How did he feel about his absence being in the documentary?
The thing is, we did say we’d talk about that at the very beginning. But as we got to know each other, and as we were working on the film, the moments that are the “uglier moments,” they become less ugly and more just the reality of the situation in his life. 

So, speaking on post-production, there were moments while we were cutting [where] we would have conversations in the rooms about, “Oh, this might be too ugly,” or whatever. I would be like, “I don’t think so at all. Earl wouldn’t think so.” It was funny that kind of went away as the process went. There are very few things that he, when he saw the film, he really wanted taken out. Because I think when he saw the totality of what we had shot and thrown together, he was like, “Yeah, this is real. This is what happened,” and they’re not necessarily ugly to him, so they don’t come across as ugly to me.

There’s another moment towards the end of the documentary where X has a candid conversation with his son Xavier. Before that point, they had kind of a contentious public relationship. How did it feel to capture that moment?
[I’ll] just say: Dave and Busters, bro. You got to take anybody to Dave and Busters and you get some emotion out of them. [Laughs.] But, I don’t know. He’s coming to terms with something at that moment, and so is Xavier, and it just felt very natural. It was just such an organic thing. I felt happy for both of them, because I obviously had spoken to Earl about Xavier. I had spoken to Xavier about his father. So it was just a beautiful moment. It’s one of those moments where you’re holding a camera and you’re like, “Oh my fucking God,” and you feel happy that this is happening for your friend. You feel happy that it’s impactful for a film, for someone to see that sort of reconciliation. So, long and short, it feels good. Hope feels good.

What are some of the things that surprised you about DMX? How was it different being around him, compared to how the public perceived him?
I was not surprised, but it was really beautiful to see his interaction with the “everyday people.” I didn’t think he was going to be above anybody else, but the level to which he relates to fans, and fans relate to him, and he relates to regular everyday Joes and ladies, it was just cool, but not surprising so much. 

You know that thing where you have a feeling about a celebrity or you’re a big fan of somebody, and then you meet them and they’re an asshole and it ruins everything for the rest of your life? That’s what it was like working at Mass Appeal. I was like, “Oh man, another one?” But it was none of that [with DMX]. It was just his openness about everything and the level of his spirituality. I never thought that was in any way some sort of performance, but it’s deep and you see it in the decisions that he makes, wrong or right. How he’s wrestling with these demons, so to speak, all the time.

When X saw the documentary, were you present with him? How did that go?
Yeah. Myself and Clark Slater, the producer and co-director, and Sean Gordon-Loebl, the three guys who went down to West Virginia in the first place [went to see him]. He was in a different rehab facility in February 2020, and we went and watched it with him and his counselors in a little room. It was on a little TV, as you can imagine, in an okay rehab spot. 

We were all in knots, obviously, because we were like, “What’s he going to think?” It was a beautiful moment, because after he saw it, he just sat and he didn’t say anything for a minute. He talked to his counselor in hush tones. And then he was like, “Alright. I like this. You did it.” He’s like, “You got it. Alright.” He recognized there’s parts in there that some people could see that are not the most appealing, but he was like, “Nah, this is what happened.”

The final scene of the doc is an emotional one with his family. He’s singing “The Way We Were.” Did it feel to you like a good final scene in the moment? What tone do you think that it elucidated for the documentary?
I mean, in that moment, it felt like the end. I’m a kind of dude that can keep shooting forever until someone tells me that I have to stop. But that was in early December. We had almost done a year and we’re sitting there with this whole family, and at that point (and to this day) we’re good with everybody. So I think in the film, when he’s like, “We’re family, friends,” he’s referring to us, the three of us eating crab legs. We happened to have cameras with us, because that’s our job, but it was just such a fitting moment. I felt it. I had sort of goosebumps because it was… I don’t know. It’s hard to describe. How did you feel when you saw the ending?

It was very emotional. Sometimes that word doesn’t even capture what you fully feel. I mean, I was on the verge of tears. The lyrics are very existential and optimistic. Taking that into account with all the turmoil in his life, and how through it all, he just wanted to try to do the best he could… It spoke a lot to the human experience. 
Yeah. That’s why it’s kind of hard for me to describe, too. It kind of sums it all up. It’s weird, because it’s this very peaceful moment where you hear all this noise in the background, and people are kind of paying attention or not. He’s just so at peace there. I do think it’s hopeful, and I think what you said is right on. It’s like doing something that’s the best you can, despite all of the obstacles and shit that’s been thrown at you your entire life. He’s there. 

We live in the tragedy of his passing, but at the end, I believe this to be a hopeful film because any of those things—the child abuse as a very young child, incarceration as a very young child, crack and drugs as a very young child, poverty, then as an adult being sort of victimized by the industry—could have led to self-destruction way before the monumental success, instead of everything that he did achieve in his life and everything that he means to everybody. Despite the fact that he passed away, I think that everything I just listed [shows] people that there is hope. It’s weird because he’s gone, but there’s hope.

When was the last time that you spoke to him?

Honestly, I mentioned my substance issues. The last time I spoke to him was in late February of this year, and I called him about something and then told him, “Yo dude, by the way, I’m about to check myself into rehab for drinking.” And the last time I talked to him, he was like, “Yo, Chris you’re going to be fine.” He’s like, “I’m proud of you. Do that.” I went in for a month, and the day I was about to get out, my girl called me and was like, “Earl’s in the hospital.” So I never spoke to him again. But the very last time I spoke to him was about me about to go get sober. I credit part of my sobriety today, to quitting drinking, to him. 

That was the last time I talked to him and he was in good spirits. He was in Florida doing something, trying to get me to go there and make some music videos. I’m like, “Dude, I just told you I’m about to go to rehab.” [Laughs.] But yeah, that was the last time we spoke. I think he touches people on a level that’s like you see in the film. Like, that street sweeper in Detroit, he was like, “He changed my life. I wouldn’t be able to make it through a 15-year bid without Earl.” That dude’s not being hyperbolic when he says that.

Do you think the documentary tells the story you intended to tell?
From the perspective of, I didn’t purposely want to tell a story that I conceived of in my head. It succeeds on that level, I believe. I think that it’s honest, and I think it’s what he would’ve wanted. I think it’s just something that people can take things away from as they wish, as opposed to oftentimes in docs, filmmakers beat people on the head with information and how they’re supposed to process that information. I think Earl himself lent his personality, the way he moves, the way he acted, and the things that he did… They lend themselves to people interpreting things on their own, so we don’t need to be like, “Feel sorry for him here, feel this way here.” He’s a complex person, and you have the right to feel any way at any point, or draw anything, or make any conclusions as a viewer, as you will.

Was there anything else about the documentary that you wanted to express?
No. The only thing I would say is, if you come into it with an open mind, I think you’ll be able to find something in Earl that you can really relate to. That’s why we made the film.

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