The Revealing Gaze of J. Cole’s '4 Your Eyez Only'

In his new documentary, the rapper sheds light on the Southern black experience

The fact of state-sanctioned, perpetual, and premature black death is perhaps the most tangible evidence of the exhausting aftereffects of American slavery. When I say "premature," I don’t mean in the sense that black people are disproportionately more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other serious medical ailments — though we are. I mean that black children, quite literally, are not allowed the space and time to grow up in America, either because the resources made available to them are insufficient to nonexistent, or because they are taken too soon by those whose duty it is to protect them.

The role of black death in the mainstream public imagination means that images of black children, living and breathing in full motion, have a significant emotional resonance with black people. Acclaimed director Charles Burnett’s first full-length film, 1978’s Killer of Sheep, for example, tells the story of a disempowered working-class black man in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts through piercingly performed, tightly wound, black-and-white vignettes. Between scenes, black kids in full playground ecstasy glide over rooftops, floating in the spaces between major scenes like fleeting specters of hope in a neighborhood where it's deathly lacking. Black children in play come to represent two sides of black folks' realities. They are the hope, embodied in that oft-repeated mantra, “we don’t die, we multiply" — but they are also a consistent reminder of stunted growth, of all the faith ground up in the death machine of white supremacy.

Burnett’s neo-documentary style almost 40 years ago can be read as a spiritual predecessor to J. Cole and director Scott Lazer’s recent HBO film, J. Cole: 4 Your Eyez Only. Both works highlight black communities in the aftermath of socially constructed and nationally silenced trauma. While the former focused in on a single story based in Watts, Cole opts for a broader conversation about how institutional racism and discriminatory practice play out in the search for a livable home in post-Katrina Baton Rouge, still feeling the effects of the storm; in the pervasive black disenfranchisement as a result of mass incarceration in Ferguson, Missouri; and in the space allowed — and not allowed — for children to play, love, be loved, and grow old all across the South.

Below the Mason-Dixon Line, you’re likely to rumble across unpaved roads, where country homes sit on green plains once plowed by enslaved black people. Abandoned factories, huge expanses of farmland, and open air aren’t qualities specific to the Heartland farther north. The South is often seen as backward — primordial, even — because of the slang, the violent history, the reverence for Confederate icons, and the small-town sensibilities relative to the big cities of the North or the sunny paradise of the West. Depictions of the South reiterate these tired-ass tropes and effectively silence the very real political and cultural concerns that Southern people share with the rest of the country. This is the dehumanizing silence that Cole aims to undo in 4 Your Eyez Only. The film extends the goal of his most recent album, with which it shares a title: In a rare interview with the New York Times earlier this month, Cole said both projects were meant “to humanize people who have been villainized in the media” by letting regular citizens, street intellectuals, and layfolk who’ve lost homes and loved ones speak for themselves, with the rapper’s stoic presence looming in the backdrop.

When he does decide to pipe up, he speaks from settings that reimagine the places we’ve already traversed. Every major stop in the film is accompanied by an interlude of J. Cole performing his songs amid subtly fantastical scenery. The forested outskirts of Missouri, when he performs “Ville Mentality,” are touched by psychedelic pastel tints that turn Cole's skin the color of seaweed and the sky the color of grapefruit flesh. “Immortal” is shot in the security office of a motel building where the caretaker has seen murders, robberies, and assaults take place; Cole himself zaps onto the security camera, pantomiming the wild occurrences those cameras have recorded over time, before finishing his performance in the laundry room.

As the film travels from Baton Rouge to Atlanta and Ferguson, to Cole's home in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and to his parents' home in Jonesboro, Arkansas, he leaves much of the narrative heavy lifting to his unnamed subjects. The documentary opens with a young black woman from Ferguson praising the artist for the way he uses his platform (”We need more people like J. Cole, with a voice”), but he rarely speaks up directly for any one topic. Instead, he opts to show us black folks telling their own stories of self-determination, survival, and the psychological toll of non-recognition from the outside world.

4 Your Eyez Only is wrapped in the intrigue of how Southern black folks get by in the midst of trauma. During the film's a quick stop in Baton Rouge, an elderly black woman testifies to her journey toward self-sufficiency, describing how she rebuilt her home after realizing the government wouldn’t help her for many years. “I’m going to do it,” she says, pointing to the cluttered debris. “I’m going to clean it because I can’t depend on them ... I’m gonna have everything my way.” She is one of only two black women we hear from in the film, for any significant length of time.

Later, in Fayetteville, a young man looking over project row houses quips, “A real muhfucka gotta know how to survive to make it out here.” There are rules, however unspoken, to continuing on in this life as both black and forgotten. Another unnamed subject in Fayetteville — this time the Tropical Motel property manager seen in "Immortal" — tells Cole of the violent and spectacular circumstances he’s seen as well as how and why he’s able to continue on: “You’ve got to have a passion for people.”

Passion isn’t lacking in 4 Your Eyez Only, but mindfulness regarding non-masculine bodies sure is. Considering the screen time and space that the film affords black men to talk about complex, interiorized topics like the discrepancy between political activism and political complaining, or the worth of blackness in the eyes of black people while black women look on from the sideline, it’s a notable absence. A fiery conversation in Ferguson regarding political disenfranchisement and action evokes the plight of black men with a depth usually absent from mainstream news hits, but reifies the silencing of black women seen on those channels as well.

It’s easy to draw a line between the quiet birth of J. Cole’s first child and the film’s emphasis on fatherhood, family, and futurity. But it would have been nice to see him address more directly his own history of implicit or explicit lyrical misogyny — the double standards for women expressed in “No Role Modelz,” or his awkward macking in “She Knows.” Cole isn’t actively ignoring the plight of black women so much as he just isn’t actively searching for their story. Instead, to balance out the male voices that saturate the film, we get images of black toddlers being loved by fathers and other male figures in place of a fuller narrative. The sepia-tone images of young daughters in the arms of their fathers are meant to elicit an emotional connection, and they do — but it’s also a reductive dynamic that we’ve seen onscreen umpteen times, attempting to build sympathy for black men as representatives of the entire spectrum of black experiences.

When Cole returns home to Jonesboro, his father tells the story of the black women who started the Craighead community center, which houses the most complete black historical archive in the town. Old school portraits flash in front of the screen as we hear how unfathomably dedicated to their communities these women were and, probably, still are. As it plays out in the film, it seems that engaging with adult black women is a matter of coincidence and not a seeking-out.

4 Your Eyez Only occasionally feels like eavesdropping on a conversation heard often by those living in the thick of Negritude. But for those just waking up to the realities of poor, Southern, black life in America, the dialogues that Cole centers will indeed shed some light on the genius of black survivability. At the end of the film, after Cole wraps up a performance of the title track with, “Yo daddy was a real nigga cuz he loved you,” he runs into a black grandmother on the way to her second of three jobs. She speaks softly, unchaining her bike from its spot, recalling the tragic events that she says took two of her children away from her — a son from negligent gun violence and a daughter from a sexual abuser. Cole looks and sounds mesmerized by her resilience. “We’re hurting,” she says. “Confused and angry.” Her voice shakes as she remembers her children. But, she tells him, in order to survive, “You gotta keep it moving.”