Roger Ebert Home

Sundance 2022: Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, Framing Agnes, TikTok, Boom.

Last night at Sundance included our first look at Coodie and Chike Ozah’s “Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy,” which is going to premiere on Netflix next month. The series as a whole will be made made of three documentary films, each of them feature length, all of it about the rise of Kanye West. From the look at the festival-premiered first part, “Vision,” we can be certain of a few things about this project over 20 years in the making: original documentarian Coodie has an incredible amount of Kanye West back from when he was only a hungry beatmaker that couldn’t get respect from major record labels, and that we’re going to get a step-by-step-by-step-by-step look at it. We get all-access here, but that’s at the sacrifice of rhythm or much cohesion. And to get to Kanye West, we're also subjected to whatever his documentarian was thinking. 

But all that may not matter to some, as “Jeen-Yuhs” will captivate people just by existing, by taking them to the brink of a musical movement that officially began with Kanye West’s first album, College Dropout. Over and over, it’s the intrigue of, here’s Kanye West, a future billionaire and self-appointed messiah, trying to get the attention of Roc-A-Fella record employees by rapping “All Falls Down” for them in their offices. Or here’s Kanye West eating at Burger King after getting the call that he finally got signed. “Vision” does have a laugh-out-loud moment when we see Kanye West react to how much it costs to buy a porno mag in Times Square, and then he buys it. The appeal of this documentary isn't so much about a great narrative structure, it’s that we haven’t seen this footage before in part because only Coodie had it. 

The footage itself is incredibly raw, which can make the journey cozy and welcome like a home movie about a self-proclaimed narcissist that you still root for. There’s something striking to how Coodie is the only cameraman (at least at this part in the chronology) and how it makes for extensive scenes of just watching West opposite the likes of Scarface (trying to win him over with “Jesus Walks,” with West’s retainers on the table) or the mighty sweet moments he has with his mother Donda West, trying to make her laugh while recounting how he came up with Jay-Z’s “H to the Izzo” hook. If this is the kind of stuff that intrigues you—and you do need to bring your own Kanye West literacy to the saga—then these raw moments will likely work. You may not even mind that they run for about as long as possible, and that sharper filmmaking would know how to make certain moments sing by making them more acute. 

The bad news is, at least with this first movie, it has a major storyteller problem. Co-director Coodie commits one of the corniest documentary sins by constantly inserting his own journal entries into the narrative, even though it offers little analytical insight. His voiceover can be helpful in letting us know the who or when of a certain moment—like when his friend Kanye West moves to New York, or how he pursues getting a MTV2 “You Hear It First” segment as his big break. But Coodie also doesn’t hesitate to chime in with what he’s thinking at the time of a particular development, or more or less congratulate himself for believing in West from the beginning and staying on the ride. The irony is that Coodie cites Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams” as a major inspiration for that film, which makes sense to this project’s ambition—but Coodie does not seem to appreciate how that documentary enraptures the viewer in part because of how much director Steve James left himself out of it. Among many uncertainties going into parts two and three of "Jeen-Yuhs," it will be interesting to see if Coodie at all minimizes his presence even as his subject becomes the biggest artist in the world. 

Framing Agnes,” premiering as part of the festival’s NEXT section, hosts a fascinating discussion about the transgender experience in a way that simultaneously engages with the past and present. It begins with Agnes Torres, a transgender woman who back in the early 1960s participated in a UCLA study by sociologist Harold Garfinkel, wanting to get genital surgery for her self-described condition of being intersex. Director Chase Joynt and co-writer Kristen Schilt looked through these interview archives about Torres and found more people whose transcripts with Garfinkel weren’t published, but can give us an understanding to how transgender people navigated the world back in that time. These conversations are then recreated by transgender actors in costume, who then analyze the characters they are playing, down to the way in which they read certain bits of dialogue. Based on their 2018 short film, this richly heady, thoughtful documentary is constantly welcoming us in by reflecting on itself. 

The format of these interviews is a classic black-and-white interview show, with Joynt acting as Garfinkel. "Framing Agnes" can jump between its different "realities" with a swift cut, making it visually striking, the ideas constantly flowing. Simultaneously, we learn about an actor and their character: it’s about Angelica Ross reflecting on Georgia, and how ideas of visibility resonate with her. Or it’s about Jen Richards talking about how she does and does not relate to her character Barbara. Silas Howard gives a certain ease to Denny as he talks about having a relationship. And then there's Agnes, who is brought to life by a powerful performance from Zackary Drucker, challenging Joynt's Garfinkel and leaving us on a proud note. In "Framing Agnes," the power of interview and interviewee shifts in an empowering, insightful manner. 

The documentary also has striking presence of non-actor Jules Gill-Peterson, who gives us a veritable feast in how to think about Agnes' story and its historical context, and also the significance of race when we talk about the dynamics within the transgender experience. “Framing Agnes” is the type of documentary that one enjoys in order to see how others think and theorize about their experiences—it offers an equal amount of great insight from both academia and those who the larger public did not know about until now.

One of the more straightforward titles from this year’s US Documentary Competition is “TikTok, Boom.,” a profile piece on the incredibly popular social media app. TikTok reigns on millions of phones and over attention spans across the world, and yet there hasn’t been a documentary of this size about it until now. Directed by Shalini Kantayya, of the highly recommended 2020 doc “Coded Bias,” this film remarks about the who, what, why, when, and how behind the vertical video app’s success, and traces its history and Chinese background. There are passages of interest in this documentary, including when it takes a stance that is more about challenging TikTok than being in awe of it. But one can’t help feel this is geared more toward outsiders than those who are already caught up in its attention beam and feeding into its algorithms. 

“TikTok, Boom.” has an impressive scope with its journalism—there are a massive amount of TikToks included in the editing, and Kantayya introduces us to many users who have much to share about their experience. For one, it succeeds at putting a face and a TikTok relationship behind some of its stars, like Spencer X, who has become a professional beatboxer thanks to the app, or activist Feroza Aziz, who has learned the limits to which the Chinese-owned app will let her talk about human rights issues before taking it down. These stories, among others, repeat the idea of how the internet can make people famous, that it can give them a presence larger than previously possible. Though this is part of the TikTok experience, it also is unremarkable in the general scheme of internet celebrity, or of its inherent dangers. 

The film’s curiosity about TikTok is more interesting in the second half when it digs into the ugly controversies, when it analyzes the more problematic parts of the app that have also popped into the news. It goes into how the Black Lives Matter movement was left with a broken hashtag during the protests of June 2020, or how journalists discovered that it has a way of weeding out people that it considers ugly. It’s alarming stuff and the documentary handles these pieces of accountability well; some of its analysis about the importance of TikTok's outreach is compelling too. But its structure and general insight feels more like scrolling through a newsfeed than it should. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Montana Story
The Essex Serpent
Firestarter
On the Count of Three
Pleasure
Monstrous

Comments

comments powered by Disqus