'4:44' One Year Later: Reframing a Legacy Through JAY-Z's Short Films

One year later, we revisit JAY-Z's '4:44' with the added context of the album's confrontational short films.
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Framing a Legacy: Re-Viewing JAY-Z’s ‘4:44’ through its Short Films

A boy is running and has been for some time if the sweat falling from his face is any indication. On his T-shirt, two words: “STAY BLACK.” He appears to be running from something, but when the camera pans out, no one—or thing—is in view.

This is the opening shot of the Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz-directed video for “Kill Jay Z,” the first track from Jay’s late-career, fully grown album 4:44. In total, 12 short films were made for the album’s 13 tracks (only “Caught Their Eyes,” Hov’s third collaboration with Frank Ocean, did not receive an accompanying video).

In the final seconds of the film, the runner begins to slant downward, starting to drop. Was he taken down by the unseen chaser? Was he tripped? Did he trip himself? The shot ends before he drops totally, angled like a question mark unanswered.

Viewed in chronological order, “Kill Jay Z” serves as a canvas that, over the course of the subsequent 11 films, is painted from a variety of directorial perspectives. Whereas the boy donning the “STAY BLACK” tee is seemingly pursued by invisible forces, “The Story of O.J.” colors in those shapeless forms, serving a reminder as to why disgraced star O.J. Simpson can’t escape his Blackness. Jaybo, JAY-Z’s spin on the racist Sambo character, attempts to climb a money staircase like an escape route from the surrounding images of trauma: Confederate flags flying while crosses burn, enslaved Africans being sold on auction blocks while KKK members are literally reproduced on a factory belt, turned out in droves.

Near the end of the video, as Black musicians continue to entertain audiences, Jaybo is lynched while a white crowd looks on. But one white child faces the camera, smiling at you—the viewer.

The child’s positioning toward the viewer speaks to a larger theme of voyeurism throughout the 4:44 films. It is not only that white audiences once gathered at lynchings with picnic food and made postcards of the violent killings of African Americans; it is also that a lot of white Americans have already forgotten this legacy of racism, and how it persists into today. Throughout “The Story of O.J.,” Black artists and athletes are expected to entertain while their culture is pilfered and their lives rendered for profits, both in fields and on stages. The smiling boy in “The Story of O.J.” is an indictment of the viewer looking on, even now.

On the question of voyeurism, perhaps no film in the set is a study in contrasts like that of “Marcy Me.” Here, a young Black boy is sent to retrieve snacks and drinks from the convenience store for a developing block party. As in “Kill Jay Z,” the boy runs through his neighborhood streets, but this time he is not running from anything: he runs his errand, then runs back to his family and friends at their gathering.

But lest this film be mistaken as the optimistic counterpart to “Kill Jay Z,” throughout the duration of the boy’s running, he is followed by police in a helicopter overhead, kept in sight by their targeted spotlight. The boy does not notice them watching him until their beam illuminates the rooftop party and everyone looks up. The group perceives that they are being seen, and one man drops his head in disappointed knowing.

The boy, who has been blocking the light with one hand while he looks up at the hovering surveillance, drops his hand and looks directly at the camera. He does not look confused or surprised at the helicopter. Rather, his expression conveys his knowledge of being watched, even this young. His expression sharply opposes the smiling boy in “The Story of O.J.,” yet both of them accuse the audience—the white audience—of being one of the watchers.

In this way, 4:44 deals in polarities of sight—both in being seen and seeing beyond. JAY-Z confronts listeners with two legacies: one, the legacy of racism traced from slavery to mass incarceration; the other, the legacy of communal freedom and love that JAY-Z and Black artists like him seek to establish over and against the former. Throughout the album and films, Jay all but wonders aloud if the latter legacy is possible when the history of racism persists seemingly without end.

Consider the Alan Yang-directed “Moonlight,” which places contemporary Black auteurs Jerrod Carmichael and Issa Rae, among others, in a Black version of Friends. Comedian Hannibal Buress dismisses the take as “just Black people doing Seinfeld.” That he gets the show’s title wrong reads as a thinly veiled comment on the wealth of shows about white people available—and how often Black art, no matter how innovative, has a shadow cast over it by the invisible but dominating white culture. Indeed, when Rae shows Carmichael an escape route, he gazes at the moon while the Academy Award for Best Picture is wrongly announced for La La Land instead of Moonlight. Black art, even when victorious, overshadowed by whiteness. In the title card that introduces the film, in letters flipped upside down, an echo of “The Story of O.J.”: “Success is never enough.”

Although JAY-Z gives witness to the unique Black experience, he does not reduce the world to monochromatic color schemes as presented by racist ideology. In “Legacy,” directed by Jeymes Samuel, Ron Perlman plays the role of Mr. Carter, an inmate who commands the respect of prison guards and incarcerated persons alike. He tells the multiracial cast of men that he has not called them together because of skin color or freedom but legacy—“the story you leave for the ones coming behind you.” Carter says what the men share in common is innocence, yet they are all at risk of becoming institutionalized both in and outside of the prison system.

This process of institutionalization was described poignantly in Michelle Alexander’s 2011 book The New Jim Crow, and JAY-Z himself has been a vocal critic of such practices in op-eds for The New York Times and his documentary The Kalief Browder Story. Writing on Meek Mill’s imprisonment for a parole violation, Jay wrote, “Instead of a second chance, probation ends up being a landmine, with a random misstep bringing consequences greater than the crime.” Although this system of mass incarceration predominantly impacts Black men and families, its public conception as a solely Black issue has arguably prevented a mass movement against its dehumanizing effects. Until Americans come to see all people’s struggles as our own, many more will suffer unjust conditions.

During the course of Mr. Carter’s speech in “Legacy,” he tells the men that the system is rigged against them, so they must cheat the system by escaping. Referred to as “The Carter Escape” in the news report following, the prison warden (played by Susan Sarandon) questions one of the inmates (played by Jesse Williams) about Carter’s speech. Warden Stroud appears perturbed by what she learns, and before the inmate leaves, she reminds him: “Nobody in here is innocent.” Again, where Carter sees innocent men being victimized by a system, the warden, as representative of the system, sees only guilt. The viewer is left to decide which legacy prevails.

Another nod to legacy-building, Ava DuVernay’s futuristic take on “Family Feud” finds women revising the Constitution “at a time, mind you, when some thought that making America great meant making us afraid of each other.” One woman (played by Susan Kelechi Watson), weighs in, stating, “America is a family and the whole family should be free. It’s like my father used to say: ‘Nobody wins when the family feuds.’” Through revealing this woman as a grown Blue Ivy, JAY-Z traces his legacy not through his own accomplishments but in what his and Beyoncé’s daughter, as well as their future descendants, will achieve.

In this future world, two presidents co-govern: a Native American woman and a Black man, who is himself revealed to be a descendant of Blue. That DuVernay would cast an indigenous woman (played by Irene Bedard) and a Black man (played by Omari Hardwick) as co-presidents recalls a little-known fact about the Sambo character that JAY-Z riffs on in “The Story of O.J.” Though the racist term came to refer to Black people almost exclusively—including a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—its historical usage referred to people of mixed African and Native American heritage. Two groups, whose legacies are intertwined with America’s history of targeted and distinct oppressions, and who DuVernay envisions someday leading the free world together. As Bedard’s character states in her native tongue and then translates into English, “We are all related.”

Throughout other films, family also plays out on personal and political levels. “4:44” connects and contrasts JAY-Z and Beyoncé’s personal dramas and joys with raw footage of WorldStarHipHop fights, police brutality, and Al Green performances. “Adnis” finds Jay haunted by his father’s spirit, guiding and tormenting him. On “Bam,” Hov considers the larger family of hip-hop, tracing rap back to its Jamaican dancehall roots with Damian Marley and Sister Nancy. In each, JAY-Z interrogates the limits of family for personal and social transformation.

“Smile,” another family-centric film, contains the third direct confrontation with the viewer. For Jay’s personal tribute to his mother coming out as a lesbian, a young Gloria (played by Dominique Fishback) finds herself falling for her friend Donna (played by Isi Laborde-Edozien), sharing intimate moments of sensuality and pain. In the final scene, the real Gloria Carter reads to a room of Black women her beautiful poem about leaving the shadows to find personal freedom through loving who you love. As the camera pans to a direct look into her eyes, she ends her poem with a single word: “Smile.”

But she doesn’t allow the viewer the smile. She holds back, denying closure. We are left hanging in the balance, wondering what it would take to make a dream of freedom a reality.

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