Jeen-Yuhs directors on the set of Kanye West’s decades-long documentary – The Hollywood Reporter
In 2019, filmmakers Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah, better known as Coodie and Chike, walked into the downtown Manhattan offices of Time Studios and dumped two duffel bags and shoeboxes full of mini DV cassettes on the conference table. The mountain of footage was the product of more than 20 years during which Simmons had filmed his friend Kanye West, beginning in 1998 in Chicago, where West was then an up-and-coming hip-hop producer and Simmons a stand-up comedian. who hosted a cable access show called String zero. On this day in 2019, Simmons and Ozah hoped to find support to edit the tapes into a narrative that would encompass West’s journey from a fresh-faced wannabe to the mercurial, globally recognized figure he is today. After hours of watching the footage with the duo, Time Studios president Ian Orefice was stunned. “He was like, ‘Yo, we’re into it,'” Simmons says.
For Orefice, who heads the film and television production division of publishing company Time, the tape was raw and revealing, with extraordinary access to one of pop culture’s most controversial figures. “Coodie saw a genius in Kanye that only Kanye has seen,” Orefice says. “They captured some of the most unique footage on one of the most compelling stories. Everyone in the world has an opinion on Kanye West, and even the most diehard fans didn’t know the story.
Time provided finishing funds and legal support, and the result was an intimate documentary series, Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogywhich sold Netflix for $30 million in 2021. When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Jeen-yuhs turned out to resonate far more deeply than a standard musical biopic, framed as it was on West and Simmons’ friendship and their intertwined but ultimately disparate paths. “Pictures don’t lie,” Simmons says. “We had to tell a true and authentic story. We couldn’t hide behind anything.
If you can become an overnight sensation after working on a project for 20 years, then that’s what Simmons and Ozah are now. This spring, they signed with UTA and took on new directing gigs, including an as-yet-unannounced scripted feature and high school basketball documentary, The All Americans: Games that Changed the Game. They also produce the work of other filmmakers, including the Time and HBO-backed documentary Katrina Babiesdirected by New Orleans filmmaker Edward Buckles Jr., which will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in June.
“These guys have a real sense of what an audience cares about, what’s important about a subject, and a brilliant way to present it,” says UTA literary and talent partner Rich Klubeck, part of of the team that now represents Simmons and Ozah. “They are very genuine, down-to-earth guys who are in touch with the culture, the politics that we live in. They are very observant. They are attentive and they are natural storytellers.
Simmons, 51, and Ozah, 44, met in the early 2000s at MTV, where Ozah produced motion graphics, and they teamed up to direct and produce West’s first music video, “Through the Wire.” , in 2003. “I’m more of a visual standpoint, more of the art direction aspect of things,” says Ozah, who earned his BFA in fine art at Savannah College of Art and Design. a background in comedy and having to perform on stage, he’s impeccable with timing and knows when we need to hit certain beats. We have a perfect hybrid, because he can really focus on the story and I’m lucky to imposing visuals and putting together the right team for us for sound design and that kind of stuff. After “Through the Wire” the duo went on to do other music videos for West, as well as Pitbull, Mos Def, Erykah Badu and Lupe Fiasco In 2007, they formed their production company based in Ne w York, Creative Control; in 2012 they ran an ESPN 30 for 30 film, benji, about the tragic death of a high school basketball player; and in 2015 they made a documentary about Muhammad Ali for BET. “We joke around with people who bother us, you know what I mean? Ozah said. “We work with everyone who believes in us and who we believe in.” Before the pandemic, they ran Creative Control from a WeWork space. Now they’re directing it from home, with Simmons in Harlem and Ozah in Jersey City, unless they’re in an editing room together.
On Jeen-yuhs, they had to make difficult storytelling choices and navigate their relationship with a highly unpredictable subject matter. A key creative decision was to include Simmons on the show, onscreen, and in a personal voiceover where he reflects on his souring relationship with the rapper. When West and Simmons first teamed up, West was eager to be the subject of a documentary, and over the years the two had discussed the final release of the project, but West was reluctant. Two days before the Sundance premiere, West took to Instagram to demand the final cut of the documentary. The producers at Time had a saying whenever the project encountered this kind of speed bump, Orefice says, “In Coodie we trust.” In the end, Simmons and Ozah retained their creative control, and West settled in, attending the premiere and giving the project his blessing. “He finally said ‘thank you,'” Simmons said. “It was amazing.” Of their relationship now, Simmons says, “I check it out. I pray for Kanye everyday.
The next steps for Simmons and Ozah are to guide young talent, in the hope that they will face fewer obstacles than before, and to advance their scripted careers, which was the goal from the start. “We stumbled upon the documents to prove that we can tell long stories,” says Ozah. “Even though we were successful in music videos, nobody tried to trust us with a feature film. We had to become students. We really weren’t ready at that time anyway. But after 20 years , “we see ourselves as having an impact in the same way as the Coen brothers, Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese,” says Ozah. “This whole journey is preparing us to be able to perform at this level.”
This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.