Among the films debuting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is one, 22 years in the making, about one of the highest profile creative figures currently at work. Co-directors Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah’s Jeen-Yus offers viewers a deep dive into the life of Kanye West. The next goal of this three-part work is distribution through Netflix — except that its subject is sidestepped against the streaming giant.
On Friday, West took to Instagram and asked Netflix to finalize the cut of the film. “I’m going to say this kindly for the last time,” West wrote. “I need final editing and approval of this document before it is released on Netflix.”
“Open the edit room immediately so I can be responsible for my own image,” he added.
That West wants control of the film isn’t exactly surprising; after all, he is someone who constantly reworks his music. But as Simmons pointed out in an interview with Variety, West might be the film’s subject, but he’s not necessarily its author.
“I had to tell this story,” Simmons said. “It’s not about making Kanye likeable or not. The footage doesn’t lie. What is special about the film is that it is not final; it is his journey through my vision.”
In the right hands, a documentary can be revealing in terms of what it reveals about its subject. Think 2016’s Weiner by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, or virtually every film Errol Morris has made in the last 25 years. The most flattering portrayal of a documentary’s subject may not necessarily be the most accurate. On the other hand, there is no obligation for documentary filmmakers to participate when it comes to their image.
A 2009 report by the Center for Media and Social Impact noted instances where a subject “had more social power than [the filmmakers] did” – and where the issues seemed to be “[exerting] Control over the outcome of the film, which differs from that of the filmmakers.”
That’s not to say that celebrities looking for cheap reception don’t have other avenues to turn to. For example, Tom Brady is executive producer on Man in the Arena — but that was clear from the start. And it likely means that viewers are unlikely to see unflattering coverage of Brady from the series in question.
But that’s also the difference between an authorized biography, an unauthorized biography, and an autobiography. A documentary subject that gives filmmakers some access without expressing a desire for control over a project is not the filmmakers’ problem. And West — or any celebrity — trying to take control of a project like this doesn’t exactly reflect them well — offsetting any gains they might have wanted to make in the editing room.
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