By Nia Todd
Published: May 3rd, 2017
A few weeks ago, HBO and rapper J. Cole partnered up again to reveal “4 Your Eyez Only,” a documentary that shares the name as his latest album. When watching the trailer, I hesitated. The clips of heated discussions taking place in Ferguson just days after Mike Brown was murdered back in the summer of 2014 were triggering. How heavy was this documentary going to be? I had to be mentally prepared to watch it, so I waited. But, now, I can share all the ways in which J. Cole has perfected his storytelling.
In the 50-minute film, J. Cole covers a lot of ground when it comes to documenting the lives of low-income Americans throughout Midwest and Southern cities. Specifically, he focuses on issues that plague black Americans, like poor housing, mass incarceration, voting laws, and integration. When the film opens up, viewers see J. Cole on the ground in Ferguson, walking through the community as the observer fans know him to be. Mike Brown’s young cousin appears about ten minutes in to give the rapper an impromptu tour of the neighborhood. They end up where the late Brown’s community memorial had been before the police took it down. In the police’s eyes, it was time to move on from the event. Citizens commend Cole for not bringing any security or cameras, other than his personal one. They understand that he is not there to exploit them and, in turn, gains their trust to open up.
In his discussion with the community, he tries to understand their anger, while also trying to offer some solutions. It’s obvious these people haven’t been heard and are taking the opportunity to draw attention to their community. They aren’t the villains that mainstream media has painted them to be.
J. Cole told the New York Times, “I felt like it would be mad powerful for black people to see black people talking to each other. And you see a rapper who’s considered one of the biggest in the game, just listening.” And he wasn’t wrong. There is value in those conversations and, hopefully, that value isn’t lost or watered down because it’s J. Cole who’s showcasing these voices.
There are plenty of both heart-wrenching and heartwarming moments throughout “4 Your Eyez Only.” The people J. Cole talks to all have one thing in common: resilience. They have been through a lot—some let down by the government, some let down by personal tragedy. That shines through in all of the cities J. Cole visited from Ferguson to Baton Rouge and even in his hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina. He then went to Jonesboro, Arkansas where he visited the E. Boone Watson Community Center, which also doubles as a museum. The museum documented the successes of every black person that lived in the community. Pride flows everywhere. These aren’t just pictures and plaques, they’re reminders that though black life in America has never been easy, it has been doable. There can be success even in darkness.
Stylistically, J. Cole and co-director Scott Lazar have done an amazing job. The music from “4 Your Eyez Only,” the album, serves as a narration. Videos for songs on the album tie the film together as they play with color. Most of these videos have cool and warm colors sharply contrasting while J. Cole performs in random places—a roof-top here and a store front there. This contrast further represents the complexity of being a black minority in America. It isn’t just black and white. Colors aren’t the only thing these two play with; the way in which the footage was shot also helps to tell the story. They go back and forth between an analog camera, an iPhone, and security cameras. Each device adds a different texture to the film that’s refreshing and visually pleasing. The images enhance the story rather than clutter it, which is a hard thing to balance in documentaries.
Overall, J. Cole did a good job. He made his point without having to be on screen for the entire 50 minutes. Instead, he presents the film in a way that allows viewers to draw their own conclusions rather than force-feeding them the ideals they “should” take away from the film. It was definitely worth the wait and made me want to share what I saw with everyone I knew even more. Maybe that was the point.