There is a brief but beautiful scene in the first act of Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy wherein Kanye West sits at a kitchen table with his mother Donda. Having recently moved to New York, he’s struggling to be seen as more than a producer, to be a rapper in his own right, and he finds comfort in their casual conversation. They wax poetic about arrogance and confidence, how the two go hand in hand for artists, but one should never forget to remain humble through their success. The documentary’s co-director, Coodie (who worked on it with his usual collaborator, Chike), acting as a guiding voice, notes that Donda “had this special way of lifting [Kanye’s] spirit, of giving him the love and guidance he needed. It was easy to see the confidence Kanye had in himself was because of the confidence Donda had in him.”

Self-image is key when analyzing Kanye West — and not only him as a musician, but also the persona he’s built for himself (for better and worse). West is something like his generation’s Brian Wilson; both musicians have been canonized as mentally ill geniuses who advanced their respective eras through skillful production. But his proximity to the contemporary media landscape has framed him differently. “Who are you to call yourself a genius?” Rhymefest challenges in the third part of Jeen-Yuhs. That’s a succinct summarization of what Coodie & Chike get into: Who exactly is Kanye West? 

From Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy

West has been alternately (sometimes simultaneously) a hero and villain in the eyes of the public. For all the praise his music has received, his bipolar disorder and the manic episodes that accompany it have made him easy to demonize. This is not an uncommon trend for Black artists who speak their minds. In West’s case, his preaching oscillates between necessary truth-telling (“George Bush doesn’t care about Black people”) and ignorance (“Slavery was a choice”). Unstated but obvious is that the public loves to frame Kanye in certain ways, often however most conforms to their own agendas, when his situation tends to be a lot more nuanced than any outside perspective can capture. 

Instead Jeen-Yuhs is framed like a personal narrative, and not only for West, but for Coodie as well. The first two of the three feature-length episodes, titled “VISION” and “PURPOSE,” focus on the buildup to 2004’s The College Dropout (the third part, “AWAKENING,” chronicles West’s career since). Coodie finds himself inextricably linked to the man he’s spending years following. The way the filmmaker peppers in bits of his own life, serving as both contrast and complement to his friend, is one of the doc’s many charms. 

But in the decades’ worth of material, Donda West remains a key figure in Kanye’s story, even 14 years after her death. In a way, it’s easier to look at Jeen-Yuhs as two parts, rather than three. It’s not quite structured to be “before” and “after” Donda’s passing, but since Coodie was entirely removed from Kanye’s life for six years after it happened, the film certainly feels that way. The public has borne witness to how important Donda was to Kanye, even beyond his songs about her (to say nothing of two entire albums that use her name for their titles). Every scene in which the musician discusses or interacts with her has special weight to it. As riveting as it is to watch Kanye produce his music, tinkering with songs that would soon soundtrack a generation’s youth, it’s these intimate moments that truly count, letting us glimpse the humanity of a figure whom the media has made larger than life.

From Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy

As Jeen-Yuhs progresses, it becomes something of a game of to piece together what exactly makes this man tick. Has Kanye’s fixation on how he presents been evident since the lyrics to “All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks”? Was the loss of his mother also the loss of the one person who kept him grounded? Is he surrounded by enablers who exploit his faults and mental illness instead of giving him the support he needs? Has all this and more distinctly affected how he’s perceived in the public eye? It’s almost as though Coodie is psychoanalyzing his friend as much as any outside observer would, incriminating his own fixation with Kanye and his evolution. 

But what makes the documentary so interesting is the measured observations Coodie can make from his unique perspective and position on Kanye. He doesn’t try to posit his reflections as definitive, recognizing that none could be. “Everybody knows him. Some people even worship this man. But he’s a real person that’s going through something.” Such a sentiment could easily come across as insincere, but through Coodie’s lens, it doesn’t feel that way. Jeen-Yuhs is empathetic filmmaking from top to bottom. 

Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy is now available to stream on Netflix.

Juan Barquin is a Miami-based writer who programs the queer film series Flaming Classics and serves as co-editor of Dim the House Lights. You can follow them on Twitter and Instagram. They aspire to be...