The first act of the three-part film showcases a young West as he navigates the music industry, learns from his mother Donda, and more
Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy – Act 1 (Vision), a documentary on the life of Kanye West (also known legally as Ye), premiered at Sundance Film Festival on Sunday night, January 23. The first of three parts totaling seven and a half hours, Act 1 (Vision) follows West from his early dealings with Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records in the late 1990s up until he is introduced as the label’s newest artist.
The film is set for a nationwide theatrical release on February 10 ahead of a Netflix premiere on February 16. The trilogy was directed by West’s friends Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah (aka Coodie & Chike), a duo that worked with him on videos for “Through the Wire” and “Jesus Walks.” Coodie recently told Variety that West did not have final approval on the film, but West subsequently demanded, “I must get final edit and approval on this doc before it releases on Netflix.” It is presently unclear if the version of the film that premiered at Sundance will be released theatrically or on Netflix.
Act 1 begins in 1998 at a birthday party for Jermaine Dupri, the Atlanta-based producer and head of So So Def Records. A skinny, bespectacled, 21-year-old Kanye West is beaming ear-to-ear, rubbing elbows with Ma$e, Cardan, and the rest of the Harlem World crew. It’s the first time Coodie films West, and it sets the tone for much of Act 1: West, fresh-faced and out of place, surrounded by the stars and and by the symbols of success for which he desperately yearns.
Coodie quickly zooms out to Chicago, explaining why he (a comedian) would drop everything he’s doing to film a documentary about his friend, an up-and-coming rapper and producer: “This is a faith-based movie,” he says, and West’s belief in himself—and Coodie’s belief in West, uncommon at the time—anchors the film. Not long after, West takes a leap of faith by moving to New York to be near Jay-Z, who validated the young musician by performing the West-produced “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” at the 2001 BET Awards.
The image of Kanye West depicted in Act 1 is unflinching, and, at times, unflattering. He’s often filmed while wearing retainers that alter his voice; several shots show the retainers strewn about on countertops and studio desks. Once, legendary Houston rapper Scarface, meeting West at the Hit Factory to hear “Family Business” and “Jesus Walks,” even chastises him for the disgusting habit. “Man, that shit don’t go up here, man. That shit been all up in your mouth, man.”
Still, it’s West’s hunger that takes center stage. The hunger that has him running 20 blocks with decks under his arms from one studio to the next, scared that he might miss an opportunity to play beats for Jay-Z. The hunger that drove him to bum rush the Roc-A-Fella offices, barging into rooms and, without asking, playing his music for everyone from marketing execs to executive assistants, rapping along with the tracks. He ends up leaving sheepishly with a few CDs and DVDs, but no record deal.
Act 1 is most successful when it depicts the root of West’s origin story: his own belief in his talent as an artist, amid a sea of stars and hangers-on who view him only as a human beat machine. Damon Dash loves the beats he makes for Roc-A-Fella artists, but doesn’t offer him a record deal. Rappers back home in Chicago want him to give them beats for free. “That’s impossible,” West tells his assistant upon hearing the request. “This is like, you go into a TV store, and you be tellin’ a n—-a, ‘Dawg, I watch TV the best.’ So, motherfucker? I still sell TVs. I’m not gonna give you a TV for free ’cause you watch TV the best.” At times, he wears the disappointment all over his face. At a Roc-A-Fella party in New York, Jay-Z is holding court, and West strolls by to dap him up. The interaction lasts seconds before Jay-Z looks on to the next person, leaving West to lumber on, head hung and shoulders slumped. He’s within reach of success but can’t yet have it.
Throughout the film, West navigates the industry in New York, grinding for his breakthrough while needing to acknowledge the people he left in Chicago, who see his success and think he’s forgotten them. His dreams, however, are too large for any one place: “I might be living your American Dream, but I’m nowhere near where my dream is, dawg,” he tells a journalist from Rolling Out. “Man, I got aspirations, I got big dreams, mo’fucka. Knowhatimsayin? Before I had my car, I used to be walking to the train practicing my Grammy speech.”
Back in Chicago, West rolls up to his mother’s apartment, crew in tow. The scenes with Donda West are the heart of the film; it’s easy to see why he felt so strongly about her. Warm and inviting, Donda welcomes her son’s friends, listens to him relating his recent accomplishments, and reminisces about his youth. West’s confidence in himself is outdone only by his mother’s confidence in him, his self-assurance rooted in years of support and fostering of his talent.
“You got a lot of confidence, come off a little arrogant even though you’re humble,” Donda West tells Kanye. “But it be important to remember that the giant looks in the mirror and sees nothing.”
“Do you think I come off too arrogant?” West asks. “No,” his mother replies, “you come off just right ’cause of what’s inside. Because you can’t be a star and not be a star.”
After an appearance on MTV News’ “You Hear It First” segment helps set up West’s long-desired record deal with Roc-A-Fella, the rapper returns home to Chicago to debut his new chain and contract at a local concert. With Donda, West visits his childhood home in a nondescript Nissan Sentra, doing that thing where you realize everything that seemed so large as a child now feels incredibly small. Donda remembers how her son was self-absorbed, even as a child, but that his talent was undeniable. She recalls all the talent shows West won as a child, and the one—the only one—he didn’t, a Stevie Wonder performance featuring his signature braids and sunglasses.
Much of what Donda West says in Act 1 (Vision) feels like ancestral wisdom, words from a loving parent that serve to humble and uplift her child. One passage in particular stands out, and Coodie even repeats it in his own narration of the film: “You can stay on the ground and be in the air at the same time,” she says, a paradox that West made true until the day Donda died. Donda West is the tree that bore Kanye, whose branches lifted him up toward the sky and whose roots kept him firmly tethered to the Earth. West knew it, too. “I don’t know, I just wanna say, like, I appreciate…” he begins to say in a moment of vulnerability, ready to show his appreciation for the foundation she’s given him, but ultimately decides the tone is too serious. “I would like to congratulate you on the good job that you did with me,” West jokes, as mother and son both burst out laughing.