In “4 Your Eyez Only,” we get a glimpse into the eyes of J. Cole – both as a director and as an artist. The documentary, which debuted on HBO April 15, spans nearly an hour and features interviews and conversations from Cole’s journey throughout the South. Between these clips, from Atlanta to his hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Cole weaved in seven new music videos from his “4 Your Eyez Only” album as well as one new track.
The documentary and music videos, co-directed by Cole and Scott Lazer, are visually spectacular. A nostalgic-wash filter changes the colors of many images on screen. Perhaps it is an intentional tactic used to bring attention to color or race. Cole’s performance of an elastic, silhouetted dance during “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is a highlight of the film.
“4 Your Eyez Only” is a documentary of the people. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he interviews survivors of Hurricane Katrina. In Jonesboro, Arkansas, he tours a museum dedicated to local black history. Throughout the film, Cole addresses social ills through the lens of conversations between blacks in several cities.
In Ferguson, Missouri, Cole meets with a friend of Michael Brown and discusses his legacy in an emotional conversation. In the background, Cole’s “Be Free,” which was released in response to police brutality and the death of Brown, plays. The documentary is visceral and vibrant. It explores the themes of his album of the same name. It explores the human condition and one man’s response to a country stricken by fear, racism and a myriad of socioeconomic problems that cripple a nation from ever achieving equality.
The documentary’s climax is during the song “Change.” The same visual techniques are used to create a tranquil vibe that resonates with the clichéd refrain: “The only real change come from inside.” The song functions as a call to arms to resist social norms and systematic, institutional discrimination. The scene of Cole running is reminiscent of the opening of “Chariots of Fire.” Like Harold Abrahams, Cole is running to overcome prejudice.
While “4 Your Eyez Only” tackles many issues, it fails to paint a complete picture. The 50-minute running time limits the scope of this documentary. It feels like Cole and Lazer had a vision for the film that may just be for their eyes only. For us, we get an extended music video that reminds us of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and Frank Ocean’s “Endless” without the full visual album experience.
For Cole, who released another documentary before the “4 Your Eyez Only” album, this documentary serves as an album extension. It is an introduction to the man and the music behind J. Cole. As the film comes to a close and the outro song of the album plays, the viewers are left with a positive feeling that through strength, change will come.