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Kanye West Sells Documentary To Netflix For $30 Million — Is His Mental Illness Being Exploited?

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Kanye West To Release Netflix Documentary

Netflix has reportedly pitched in $30 million for a Kanye West documentary spanning over two decades of the rapper’s life. 

The docuseries will be split into multiple episodes containing never-before-seen footage of the artist’s rise to music fame, success in the fashion industry and more, and is expected to hit our screens later this year. 

But is West just another celebrity victim of the media spotlight, or is he finally getting the chance to tell his story his way? 

Over the course of 2020, we watched West exhibit concerning behavior online, we hung on to falsehoods about his sexuality and we speculated on his marriage as divorce papers were filed.  

The world is an unforgiving and exploitative place for celebrities with mental illnesses. Do we risk adding to this exploitation by watching his life play out in documentary form while Netflix's stock rises? 

Though the exact contents of the footage are not known, the docuseries is expected to delve into West’s artistry in fashion and music, his failed 2020 presidential election campaign, and the death of his mother, Donda West. 

In West’s long and highly publicized mental health battle, his struggle to come to terms with the death of his mother has been a recurring issue. 

Donda funded West’s first recording session and acted as his manager in the early years of his career. 

While undergoing plastic surgery, Dona died on an operating table in 2007. Three months later, West was onstage performing “Hey Mama” as he mourned her passing. 

In 2015, West stated that he blamed himself for her death. Asked what he had sacrificed for his success, he replied: "My mom."

"If I had never moved to L.A. she'd be alive … I don't want to go far into it because it will bring me to tears."

In 2018, West told Twitter that he would be using the face of Donda’s surgeon as his next album cover. Later that year, “Ye” arrived with a cover that read, “I hate being bipolar, it’s awesome,” instead. 

Then in 2020, while the world watched West in another alarming spiral as it played out on Twitter, his wife Kim Kardashian highlighted once more his ongoing grief and begged for compassion: 

“He is a brilliant but complicated person who on top of the pressures of being an artist and a Black man, who experienced the painful loss of his mother and has to deal with the pressure and isolation that is heightened by his bi-polar disorder... Living with bipolar disorder does not diminish or invalidate his dreams and his creative ideas.” 

RELATED: 40 Best Kanye West Song Lyrics & Rap Lines From His Best Albums

Delving into the ongoing trauma of his mother’s death and the effects on his career perhaps offers a chance for the compassion toward West that Kardashian has asked for. 

We have seen West chronicle the highs and lows on Twitter and through his music enough for many conclusions to be drawn already. But without delving into the nuances of what goes on behind the scenes, there’s a chance we’ve all gotten it wrong. 

Over the trajectory of two decades, we may see the highs and lows in a fresh perspective that’s true to the bipolar experience, or at least, true to West’s bipolar experience. 

With full creative control over the documentary, West is given the opportunity to shape his own narrative. 

Recent iterations of the celebrity documentary have seen figures like Britney Spears analyzed and assessed on-screen without allowing the star her chance to tell her own story, or even so much as consulting with her on the finished product. 

West’s documentary is said to be produced by Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah, better known as Coodie & Chike, who directed and produced West’s 2004 music video “Jesus Walks (Version 3)” and “Through the Wire.”

RELATED: Are You Bipolar? Here Are The Symptoms I Ignored

This, hopefully, leaves the telling of West’s story in the hands of people he can trust. However, there is a certain distortion of the truth that comes with telling one’s own story. 

We know from those who have once been close to West that he is not the most respectful of characters. 

West’s former bodyguard, Steve Stanulis, was rumored to be making a documentary of his own about working for the rapper he once threatened with two separate multi-million dollar lawsuits. 

It’s difficult to imagine that some of these low points will make it into West’s cut of his docuseries, though perhaps we don’t have a right to these private exchanges in the first place. 

The ability to exercise control over one’s story becomes especially complicated when mental illness is involved. 

From blaming Black people for slavery on TMZ to accusing his wife of wanting to abort their child, West has said and apologized for many questionable actions that came during moments of hypomania. 

Could the documentary wind up being another of these episodes if West is not given meaningful support? 

One could argue that Netflix is complicit in exploiting a troublesome and controversial figure for their own profit. With West’s history of mental illness on full public display, providing him a platform to potentially create another buzzworthy bipolar episode is a concerning decision. And one that comes on the heels of a long line of decisions that involve executive boardrooms that prey on vulnerable stars

While Spears is a target because she’s not in control of her own narrative, West is a target because he is. Though control is the operative word, and perhaps a debate about how much control a megastar with mental illness could have in the presence of an entourage of enablers. 

If there’s one thing that the entertainment industry knows, it’s that celebrities can maintain an audience when they’re at the top of their game, and they can maintain an audience when their lives are falling apart. West’s continued controversies suggest that he’s in desperate need of help that he hasn’t yet gotten. 

It’s in our nature to be drawn to controversy. Much like we slow down for car accidents, we’re going to slow down for West’s new documentary. It’s going to do extremely well, there’s no doubt about that. But should it?

Should we be encouraging more of the same kind of content that’s potentially exploitative and harmful, just so we can get a glimpse of West’s life? We want insight, an explanation, maybe. But, as stated previously, maybe it’s not our right to access the private lives of public figures, even when it feels like it should be. Maybe it’s not Netflix’s either, or even West’s himself, to put the full onus of responsibility on the public to look away, when they already know that we can’t. 

That said, there is an opportunity here for a meaningful gaze into what it means to be a Black artist living with bipolar disorder on the world stage. An illness that is so often trivialized and misrepresented may need to be conveyed through lived experience. 

RELATED: Why Kim Kardashian Officially Filed For Divorce From Kanye West After Nearly 7 Years Of Marriage 

This is not West’s bipolar as it manifests on Twitter, in interviews or in the sidelines of a "Keeping Up With The Kardashians" episode. This is two decades of a life filled with greatness and shame in equal, often intersecting, measure. 

Alice Kelly and Kevin Lankes are both editors at YourTango. Alice works on furthering an awareness of social justice and equity, and Kevin is focused on writing that breaks down barriers in mental health and empowerment.