“4 Your Eyez Only”: Fighting Normalcy

A deeper look into the HBO x Dreamville documentary and why it matters more than ever during our COVID-19 pandemic lockdown as it nears its 3rd anniversary on April 15th.

Image found via Google Images. (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6833774/mediaviewer/rm4134679552)

“I understand Blackness from the inside out. What my goal is, is to allow the world to see the humanity that I know personally to be the truth.” — Kehinde Wiley

J.Cole, one of music’s current superstars, is not exactly the kind of artist you would picture filming from a vintage 8mm Super 8 camera or much less co-direct a documentary. However, he and director Scott Lazer did just that when they premiered “J.Cole: 4 Your Eyez Only” on April 15th, 2017 via a partnership between HBO and Dreamville Films, which is the film division of Cole’s record label Dreamville Records. Cole and Lazer embarked on a journey visiting folks from Black communities in locations that included Baton Rouge, LA., Atlanta, GA., Ferguson, MO., and Cole’s hometown of Fayetteville, NC as the rise of police brutality continued to increase towards higher peaks in the last decade. They sought to capture the conversation of daily plight in communities that are not properly represented in mainstream media. The result of their efforts was an eye-opening, heartbreaking experience for most removed viewers in what a majority of Black Americans would consider a normal routine.

Clocking in at 49 minutes, the film opens with Cole greeting fans and holding casual conversation as he films content on his Super 8 camera with Lazer filming the surrounding areas. The scene quickly transitions into one of the many conversations of the film, which is the direction to go as individuals and a community in the awakening of the Trump presidency. Cole stands in as both observant co-director and willing participant as he listens in and examines the emotions and body language behind each individual commentary on Black plight in America. The scene then transitions into the music video for “For Whom the Bell Tolls” off of J.Cole’s most recent project at the time, 4 Your Eyez Only, which served as the soundtrack to the film. The album is written from the perspective of Cole’s late childhood friend, using the pseudonym “James McMillian, Jr.,” as a form of getting his story to his young daughter after being murdered at the age of 22. The friend was a former drug dealer that was attempting to move on from his past after giving birth to his daughter. The format for the duration of the film continues in this manner with scenes having a longer extension due to the messages portrayed that tie directly into Cole’s album lyrics and production. Lazer and Cole pulled off the smooth hybrid of implementing music videos within an observational documentary. A great example of this is the music video for the song “Neighbors” showcasing actual footage where police officers were raiding “The Sheltuh,” J.Cole’s creative hub for his Dreamville artists. The inverted colors in some parts also served as the simple purpose of contextualizing the beautiful imagery of the inside of houses and surrounding communities. “Want You to Fly, an unreleased J.Cole track, also uses an outdoor setting to bring focus into religion and how Black folk need a high power to believe in to keep moving forward.

While a majority of music documentaries just incorporate new music within one or two scenes, J.Cole uses his album to push the narratives of his subjects. The subjects in this film are random people from different age groups and cities that carry various life experiences through their tone of voice and body language. One scene in the beginning of the film reveals the house of an elderly Black woman whose home in Baton Rouge, LA. had been flooded due to heavy rain. You can hear the frustration and tiredness in her voice as her voiceover continues playing while the unfinished restoration of the house is shown on the camera. She even is shown attempting to sweep and help the workers clean the house. Her stance on the situation is that she’ll handle her business due to not being able to trust the dependency of Roofing Contractors to replace her damaged shingles. It’s a speechless, eye-opening moment because Lazer’s intense focus on the house and the workers allow the reality to set in for viewers. This scene not only shows how far removed we are from these situations, but also how we take our lifestyles for granted in times of despair.

Another emotional, jaw-dropping scene that gave the film its essence was during the final minutes where Cole and his team had just wrapped up filming for the day and they saw a middle-aged Black woman heading out from the apartment complex building next to where they were shooting the scene. Cole greeted her and proceeded to ask her about where she was heading. The woman was heading to her second job of the evening out of the three that she possessed during the time of the filming process. Cole found out that she was a 52- year old grandmother that lost two out of her four children to murder. Her 19 year-old son had died by a gunshot to the head after fighting with a best friend about the gun, while her 14 year-old daughter was killed by their 13 year-old neighbor who attempted to rape her. Flabbergasted by her optimistic demeanor, Cole preceeded to ask her where she draws her strength from to keep moving forward. The woman told him that she drew her strength from her faith in God, which captured the perfect ending to the film. Cole cared about his subjects enough to step back and let them be their authentic selves, while Scott just listened and let the camera roll to encapsulate the depth upon witnessing Black livelihoods beyond 49 minutes of footage.

In The Red and Black contributor Rosemary Scott’s review of the film, “Review: J. Cole’s documentary ‘4 Your Eyez Only’ highlights race relations, faith,” she states how the film’s overall message is not altered but rather emphasized for relatability and empathy to shine through as the subjects tell their stories. “J.Cole seeks to show viewers exactly what it is like in this community, from the mouths of the residents themselves” (Scott, paragraph 16). Cole and Scott’s efforts are directly attributed to Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s early efforts reflected in “Chronicle of a Summer (1961).” Steven Ungar’s dissertation, “In the thick of things: Rouch and Morin’s Chronique d’un ‘ete reconsidered,” briefly mentions how Morin and Rouch felt as if their documentary was more so research based on the interactions between the directors and subjects. “Morin, whom some credit as having coined the expression cinema-verite, has described Chronique as less of a film romanesque or a documentary than a recherche drawing on the interaction between authors and actors with shared concerns” (Ungar, 9). Picking up where Obama’s departure left off, Black people were left on the side of the road wondering which direction to move forward into as police brutality was exceeding a national and historical peak. Everyone, from celebrities to lower-class citizens, was on the brink of untapped anger and rage with new names being presented to the media and organized peaceful protests were met with borderline riots. J.Cole, using his superpower of normalcy, assisted citizens by performing high-caliber music such as the “Be Free” track on David Letterman in 2014 and joining protests to listen to old and young folks express their emotions from the deepest recesses of their ancestries. The film was a necessary answer to everyone’s issues since it not only highlighted the deep-rooted issues of the Black community (i.e. gentrification, death, colorism, etc.), but it provided various solutions to combat the routine nature of life. Ungar also comments on how Morin and Rouch’s use of urban geography makes the film special. “Site and space in Chronique go well beyond ‘local colour’” (Ungar, 17). Lazer and Cole’s journey to the South was a bold choice for the overall direction of the film since Black communities are commonly misrepresented in the news. These beautiful locations revealed that the heart and soul of these communities was hope. Regardless of whether citizens were in the mud or not, they tirelessly clung to hope that they could get the jobs done themselves. They were fed up with having to wait for a savior and decided that in Trump’s presidency that they would do the work to get themselves out of their personal Hell. The public sphere that occured in the middle of the film was phenomenal based on the fact that people were passing down knowledge to each other on how to change the system. Each location carried its own form of history and pride, and yet each person in the film did not seem deterred by the imminent future. Rather, they were focused on combating the issues and traumas before they could settle their roots and unearth our mark on history and the larger Universe.

In conclusion, what makes 4 Your Eyes Only a one-of-a-kind documentary is the power of self-belief and faith in religion. It taught its viewers that once you are able to wield the two powers, then you can create new life outside of your normal. As this film remains vital during our COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, it serves as a reminder that we are able to break out of routine if we use our resources and share our knowledge to combat a potential, new “normal.” All it took to show us the way was a director and a rapper who stopped to talk and actually listen to the cries of his own people.

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Masongo Ogora

God’s Science Project. || multi-hypenate creative. || Twitter // Instagram: @MasongoOgora || Email: masongo.ogora@gmail.com