Kanye West’s new film, Jesus Is King, has been labeled a documentary. But that statement isn’t quite right. In multiple ways.
It’s not really a film. Or a documentary. Nor is it even about Kanye West. Instead, what Kanye has given us is an abstract, visually experimental, 31-minute, Gospel-filled feature—both in terms of its music style and its theological message. And it’s one that movingly expresses worship for Jesus Christ as King.
Kanye West is famous for lots of reasons: his 15-year rap career. His break-the-internet publicity stunts. His marriage to Kim Kardashian. His out-of-the-mainstream political opinions. His mental health struggles.
But Kanye has, albeit inconsistently, also expressed an affinity for Jesus. One of his first big hits, after all, was “Jesus Walks” back in 2004. And Kanye’s talked about Jesus more than once since then—even though at times he’s perhaps suggested that he’s on Jesus’ level when it comes to stardom. (See 2013’s controversial album Yeezus for starters.)
And it’s often been a challenge, to say the least, to square Kanye’s sincere-sounding proclamations of faith with his graphically explicit lyrics and his fame-seeking narcissism.
That said, Kanye’s been talking about Jesus a great deal recently. And his occasional Sunday Service worship events have become a cultural talking point as well. In a conversation this week with Apple Music’s Beat One, he said:
“Now that I’m in service to Christ, my job is to spread the gospel, to let people know what Jesus has done for me. I’ve spread a lot of things. There was a time I was letting you know what high fashion had done for me, I was letting you know what the Hennessey had done for me, but now I’m letting you know what Jesus has done for me, and in that I’m no longer a slave, I’m a son now, a son of God. I’m free.”
Kanye’s growing convictions are represented on his new album and in this new theatrical feature, both of which go by the title of Jesus Is King.
I wasn’t sure what to expect walking into this short feature. Some have suggested that it’s nothing more than a marketing vehicle for the album. It probably is that, as Mr. West certainly knows a thing or two about marketing. But I was surprised by how much more than that it is, too. Because if this is a marketing vehicle, Jesus Is King is unlike any I’ve ever experienced before.
The film features Kanye’s Sunday Service choir passionately belting out Jesus-focused Gospel songs. (Which I’ll say more about in a moment.) But this experimental art film does much more than just pan across the impassioned faces of these talented singers.
We watch as the choir makes its way up an almost alien-looking key-shaped hallway into James Turrell’s naked-eye observatory at the Roden Crater in Arizona’s Painted Desert. In a circle around a stairway that leads to an oval opening in the ceiling, the choir sings.
One powerful sequence features the camera gazing up at the director of the choir (who’s mostly in shadows, as are most of the singers throughout the film) with the hole in the roof visible directly above him. His deep passion contrasts with the swirling clouds roiling overhead, artistically capturing a sense of individual faith in the face of God’s transcendent glory and beauty.
At times, similar visual juxtapositions throughout the film seem jarring and abstract. The only things I could pick out of my memory to compare this cinematography to came from movies such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Or perhaps Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.
Admittedly, this stylistic approach may not “work” for every viewer—especially anyone expecting a more traditional “concert video” approach to capturing Kanye’s choir on film. Or anyone expecting to see Kanye sing and dance. (There’s none of that here.) But for me, at least, the contrast between these intimate expressions of faith over and against sweeping images of majesty and the vastness of the sky worked very effectively.
That approach worked not just because of the film’s stunning visuals, but because everything about this short feature focuses on Jesus.
Jesus Is King is broken up regularly by passages of Scripture pointing toward Jesus and the Gospel, beginning with Mark 1:15, where we read onscreen, “In the words of Jesus Christ, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.’” Elsewhere, we see the words of John 3:16, John 8:12 and Philippians 4:23 onscreen. And the film concludes with, “Every knee shall bow. Jesus is Lord.”
Exultation, praise and worship pour forth from the choir throughout. We hear song lyrics such as, “Oh Lord, how excellent is thy name,” and, “Jesus is the King/King of Kings/Jesus is Lord/ … Our God we praise forever.”
One segment focuses exclusively on an individual woman’s radiant visage as she sings. And a sense of deep, worshipful joy seems to permeate this choir in their voices, their movements and their expressions. Indeed, one triumphant song exclaims, “Joy, joy, joy, incredible joy!” as they sing about Jesus.
As for Kanye West himself, he’s uncharacteristically invisible here. He quietly moves in to sing with the choir (with his shadowy back to the camera) near the end of the film. In fact, I didn’t even notice that he’d shown up at first. That’s followed by an intimate scene, shot amid deep shadows, featuring Kanye and three other musicians. A final vignette zooms in close on the singer holding his infant son, who’s sleeping peacefully in his arms as Kanye sings over him—a tender portrait that reinforces the film’s focus on a loving heavenly Father’s affection for His children.
All in all, this abstract, Gospel-choir worship experience packs an emotional punch that surprised me by how deeply it moved me—something I certainly wasn’t expecting walking into the theater.
Time will tell, of course, how Kanye’s faith plays out. But for this moment, at least, he’s earnestly focusing his musical talents on the King of Kings, even as he himself steps into the shadows.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.