“Tonight is not about Yeezus. It’s about Jesus,” said DeVon Franklin, the TV and film producer, bestselling author and VP of the Motion Picture Academy’s board of governors, introducing a panel at NeueHouse in Hollywood this week. It was both, of course, as the event he was leading was sponsored by Netflix and at least ostensibly in the service of promoting discussion about “Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,” the three-part documentary about hip-hop titan Kanye West that just rolled out over three weeks on the streaming service. Franklin wasn’t being misleading, though: Yahweh mentions did at least slightly beat out Ye shout-outs during the two-hour discussion, although there was no mistaking that the promise of discussing pop culture’s most polarizing figure was the chief lure for the members of L.A.’s Black church community that primarily made up the full house.
So is “Jeen-yuhs” really a faith-based film? Its makers say yes, even though no one reviewing the streaming doc so far has thought to call it a Christian film, per se. That’s a textual undercurrent to the documentary that culminated this week in what surely had to be a first for Netflix, in sponsoring an event at the tony NeueHouse that sometimes veered closer to a quiet revival meeting than a Kanye-related talkfest.
Besides co-directors Simmons and Chike Ozah, Netflix’s “Jeen-yuhs conversation on faith and culture” also brought in leading gospel music star Kirk Franklin; nationally known pastor and inspirational author Michael Todd; poet J. Ivy (who co-wrote the “Jeen-yuhs” script); and panel host DeVon Franklin, who is executive-producing CBS’ upcoming reboot of “Early Edition” and has current or recent deals with Sony, Disney, Paramount, Searchlight, BET Plus and, of course, Netflix.
In the green room backstage after the panel, the five panelists talked with Variety about why they feel it’s appropriate to bring “Jeen-yuhs” to the attention of a Christian audience, even as it centers on as rough a spiritual role model as West. During the two-hour panel, no negative words were spoken about the rapper, and few allusions to his controversial nature. Offstage, the five were quicker to acknowledge that West’s mercurial nature still make him a polarizing figure within the Black church community, but their collective feeling about West is assuredly a celebratory one.
Anyway, even when the second and third parts of the doc to get into West’s erratic path since he became a superstar, Simmons makes for an additional Christian role model in the film who’s less… complicated. And faithful, if not long-suffering, in his patience to get the project done: As Franklin said on the panel, “When you started this film, Netflix didn’t exist. Can we put that in perspective? God gave them something so big, the entity that could get it to the world wasn’t even created yet.”
The Christian audience might not necessarily be the primary one that anyone thinks of for “Jeen-yuhs.” Did this come about through Netflix wanting to add the church audience as a kind of auxillary one?
DeVon Franklin: I have a second-look deal with Netflix to make content. And they’ve always wanted to be in the faith space. But when they came on this particular project, it was really about just watching what Coodie and Chike and J. Ivy did. And I mean, the documentary is nothing but a faith journey. So to be able to pull something like this together was really just pulling through the organic thread that was already in the piece of content.
When Variety reviewed the film out of Sundance in January, there wasn’t much focus on a faith factor, but we did note that this is the very, very rare Netflix documentary that ends with the documentarian praying for the subject. [Laughter.]
Chike: That actually started with a conversation I had with my mother, and she was saying she saw the Soldier Field listening party. [This was the controversial “Donda” livestream in August where West first brought out Marilyn Manson and DaBaby as guests.] And she was like, “Y’all need to pray for Kanye.” So right after I got off the phone with my moms, I called Cootie and he was like, “That’s what we need to do: pray for him.” So that’s really how we landed on ending the film with prayer.
Are there other efforts that are being taken to reach the faith community or the church committee to let them know this is a film they’ll be interested in, if they’re not already tuned into it?
DeVon Franklin: The five of us should go on tour. [Laughs.]
Michael Todd: I think the real truth about this film is the Christian community and church communities are already checked into this narrative, because of how much Kanye is controversial as well as has affected culture. So even if a parent is not into it, it’s in their home because their kids are into it. Even if it’s not a Christian conversation, it’s a conversation of culture, and Christians are in the culture. And I’ve watched it — as the pastor of a church — see it come in in so many different ways for different people, and how it is inspiring people to believe again, in their own dreams, in their own destiny, and having faith in a journey that doesn’t look like anything else. And I told this amazing director, Coodie, that the story of Kanye is amazing, but his story is just as relevant. His story of faith to leave a career (in comedy) that was at the same level as Kanye’s at that moment (circa 2000), and say, “I’m going to go with 51% what I call baby faith, and this is going to work out,” and he threw himself into that thing. And now we’re sitting here 20-something years later, and people all over the world are being impacted by this man’s faith with a camera.
Coodie: One thing that we have always said, with all the videos and documentaries we were doing up until this point, is that God writes and Jesus directs. In everything we do, Jesus directs what we do. It’s impossible to take the credit for this. … Even when he was using these other directors for “Jesus Walks” [the first two times a music video was produced to that song], to us directing the (third) video for “Jesus Walks” (in 2004), and then all of a sudden it went viral, a year and a half in… We can’t make that up. It was all Christ, period.
J. Ivy: Our intention from the beginning was we did understand that we’re making a faith-based movie. We would say that often. But the fact that it’s moving in circles that don’t look like churches is what’s amazing to me, because those are the spaces where it’s needed the most.
Kirk Franklin: There’s a juxtaposition there that is interesting. After working on “Ultralight Beam” with Kanye, there were some churches that disinvited me, and I had some concerts canceled, because I worked with Kanye. So there’s still that tension. We’ve got some people that are open, but then you’ve still got some people that, because it doesn’t look like the traditional manner of what preaching the gospel looks like, they reject it.
Is there still a mixture of attitudes toward Kanye? Because there was that moment with “Jesus Is King” that looked like he might be moving exclusively into Christian music. And he still has spiritual references in his music, but just today, there’s a music video in which he kidnaps and buries Pete Davidson, and that’s not going to win another Dove Award from the Gospel Music Association.
Kirk Franklin: I do believe that his faith is sincere. Even when you look at what Kanye does with Sunday Service, Kanye’s not making money flying all these people around. That’s something he pays out of his own pocket. There’s no reason to do that other than it’s something that he does because that music is healing for his life. When I first started working with Kanye, he was willing to offer gospel artists his production for free and without using his name, because he didn’t want to create conflict. We had talked about worrying about what the church was going to say. And this was back in 2012. I said to him, “We’re not going to do that, because that sends a message that your gift is good but you’re not good — that we’re gonna take your gift but the person doing it is not holy enough.” … You know, just like all of us, he’s got his demons. But I think that this wonderful piece that these two guys have put together can show that there’s a humanity in the journey. And his journey’s not over.
J. Ivy: It doesn’t matter where your subject sits at. There can be good things about ‘em, bad things about ‘em. You can still use his life and his goals as a lesson.
DeVon Franklin: The point of tonight wasn’t about Kanye. We were all bombarded (after the event): “This changed my life. It gave me hope. I needed a word. Now I’m going to be walking” [a la “Jesus Walks”]. It’s probably an easier narrative to make it about Kanye, but the truth of the matter is that this is much bigger, and that’s what was even so powerful about the documentary is that it was about him, but it wasn’t. Anyone who’s ever had a dream and wanted to go chase that dream, this documentary speaks to. And tonight it was about: Hey, how do we as a culture come together on issues of faith and have a productive, instructive, motivating and inspiring conversation, and frame the conversation? … And what Netflix is trying to do goes beyond a piece of content. This was hopefully the first of many opportunities to really start bringing the country together around content that can really uplift and inspire and improve their lives and community, and improve the family. The content can be the catalyst for connection — that’s what tonight was about.
Whether it’s a Christian or secular discussion of faith, that word definitely would seem to apply when it comes to you taking more than 20 years to get to finish your movie. Didn’t you ever get discouraged and lose faith, or were you as mellow about it as you seem during the movie, not knowing if there’d actually be a movie?
Coodie: Every time we got the door slammed in our face, I would just say, and Chike as well: “Thank you, God.” For whatever reason we weren’t supposed to do it at that time. Much later, working with DeVon before this was finished, we came in with a pitch that was crazy that just didn’t happen. I said, “Thank you, God.” I don’t know why I’m saying “thank you,” but I feel like it’s all about gratitude. You’ve gotta know that what he has for you is going to be for you, period.
There was that moment in late January where the Sundance premiere was coming and Kaye was posting on Instagram that he was objecting to the film and had to be allowed in the editing room, or else. And then all of a sudden you’re showing up at your Hollywood premiere. What happened to turn him around?
Coodie: Faith and brotherhood.
Chike: Coodie from the jump had a vision of how he wanted Kanye to watch this film, and it was always around family and those that loved them. And it’s just amazing to see how that actually happened. Because we did go through this thing where w’d get to a certain point where it seems like Kanye is not really co-signing the film, our teams would just keep on moving, keep on going. And Coodie sat with him. There were times when he was with Kanye, opportunities that were almost made for him to watch the film, and whatever reason they just didn’t happen that way. There was actually a time when Kanye, and his whole team had all three movies in their possession, and he still didn’t watch. Then the fact that we had a premiere and Kanye comes to the premiere, where all his friends and family are at the premiere — you can’t make that up. Everything Coodie and I thought we wanted to happen, it happened even better than we could even imagine it was gonna happen.
Coodie: What we were thinking was gonna be the end of the movie a long time ago is actually gonna be the end of the movie. I hope we got it cut in, though. [He’s told the additional scene, of West attending the premiere screening, hasn’t yet been edited into the finale as airing on Netflix.] It’s not in this version? We got a version that you’re gonna see the actual premiere, and Kanye finally giving us the praise, just actually thanking us, period.
Do you think when he finally watched it, he got a sense of his journey and your journey, both?
Chicke: Well, I don’t know if he’s seen (parts) two or three yet.
Coodie: There’s a vision and there’s a purpose and then there’s the awakening. So I think once he sees all three, I think we’re going to have the Kanye that I imagined back in 2002 or 2003. That’s when he went on Tavis Smiley and I told Tavis, “This dude is going to be like a Malcolm X or Martin Luther King type of figure.” And he was like, “You think so?” I was like, “Yeah, watch. You’ll see.” Don’t let your imagination get in the way of God’s…
Chicke: We can never control how Kanye’s going to digest it. That’s his journey and his walk. We don’t know. We can’t control that. We can only hope that he’ll receive it and it’ll affect him in a really positive manner. But what’s so dope in your efforts to show one person is that there’s something where you can maybe change the dynamic of a whole bunch of people. I’ve never experienced something like this before, where I’m actually looking at a shade room (online) where it’s supposed to be all negative stuff, and everybody’s talking about how inspired they are.