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Do Filmmakers Need an Artist's Permission to Tell Their Life Story?

The blowback against CJ Wallis asks a bigger question for documentarians when discussing deceased artists.


"So, over the next year I'm going to start collecting interviews & content to make the definitive Mac Miller documentary," filmmaker CJ Wallis tweeted Monday afternoon. His preemptive announcement was quickly dismissed by Mac Miller's family. Consequently, Wallis deleted his initial tweet and tried to backtrack.

"We felt comfortable announcing our intentions in advance of receiving permission because they were just that–intentions," said Wallis. The blowback from fans was almost instantaneous. "I saw your absolute trash apology," wrote someone on Twitter. "You're not sorry at all. Anybody with half a brain would of [sic] known that even 'posting intentions' WITHOUT PERMISSION is a 100% NO GO." Instead of sympathizing with fan's frustrations, Wallis continued to add fuel to the fire, responding to many of the criticisms with the same excuse: that the fans misinterpreted his initial announcement. "Don't support this shit," wrote another Twitter user. "Y'all rushing everything with this man...Let shit like this be done right."

It's true that documenting a pop icon's legacy is a tricky business, and it's been done many times without the best interest of the artist or their loved ones in mind. Avicii's posthumous third album, Tim, is set for release this Thursday and will be put out by the same executives that Avicii's step-father, Tommy Korberg, says pushed his step-son towards suicide. In the grim documentary Avicii: True Stories, the DJ aired multiple frustrations about his rigorous tour schedule and said the industry heads in charge refused to pull back. "I have said, like, I'm going to die," Avicii tells the camera, exhausted.

The curation of hip-hop documentaries has similarly been mishandled in the past. Michael Rapaport—a 49-year-old white actor who often posts long-form Instagram rants about rappers and who recently ignited a feud with Meek Mill after calling him "trash"—faced allegations of misrepresentation from Q-Tip after Rapaport's Tribe Called Quest documentary purposefully overdramatized Tip and Phife Dawg's tumultuous relationship. Rapaport also allegedly snubbed the group out of producer credit. "He was breaking my balls," Rapaport said of Tip's criticism, alleging that the group was hardly involved in the film and only wanted a producer credit after the movie was wrapped. "We had already agreed on profit shares...but I didn't want them to be a producer on the movie."

While Rapaport's movie was well-received, the controversy surrounding it posed a bigger question about what level of accuracy and respect filmmakers should be held to when discussing an artist's legacy, especially if said artist tragically passed away. Rapaport said the film was his creation and that the group was rarely consulted during filming. "I won't even say who the producer is cause it doesn't matter," said Rapaport in response to the allegations. "[The producer] is a good dude, he's a black dude. It wasn't some evil Jewish producer trying to fuck over the poor black hip-hop guys." Even though Tribe received fair profit shares, is that a good enough reason to justify a filmmaker spinning someone else's story however they want?

The controversial documentary Leaving Neverland, which explores the child abuse allegations against Michael Jackson, was similarly dismissed by Jackson's Estate as defamatory prior to release. The narrative of accuser James Safechuck was called into question after he said Jackson raped him in the "train station" on the Neverland ranch between 1988 and 1992, despite the station not being built until 1993. Director Dan Reed defended the validity of Safechuck's accusations, saying these claims did not clash with Safechuck's initial claims, and he was actually at Neverland both before and after the station's construction. After the allegation was called into question, Oprah Winfrey removed her interview with accusers Safechuck and Wade Robeson from her YouTube channel. Jackson's Estate announced that they are opening a $100 million lawsuit against HBO as a result of the documentary.

Yet, for both Rapaport and Reed, their work was well-received upon initial release. Both films were deemed as accurate depictions of the subjects they covered, even without the artist or their family's approval. Leaving Neverland was lauded upon release as well researched and carefully constructed, with critics calling the film "chillingly credible," among other things. Despite the film's heavy-handed focus on A Tribe Called Quest's inner turmoil, Rapaport's Beats Rhymes & Life was equally praised for its depiction of the group despite their minimal input. "Somewhat against the odds, Rapaport manages to parlay his access and sycophancy into the plaint of a concerned fan," wrote The Boston Globe. So why does the CJ Wallis blowback feel different? Could it be because he didn't initially allow for Miller's family to have an opinion? What are the rules filmmakers should follow when discussing the life of an artist?

"Again, please read the initial tweet," CJ Wallis tweeted in response to fans' frustrations over Mac Miller's documentary. "No one put out anything. Nothing was shot. No progress was ever made. I had barely even got up from my desk between the original tweet suggesting the idea and asking for contacts & speaking with clancy/their estate." But is it fair to say we collectively misinterpreted Wallis's announcement? His Tweet spawned multiple headlines from every reputable hip-hop publication: "Mac Miller Documentary Confirmed," read XXL.

In a written statement, Wallis said of the backlash: "What crushes me about this most is that the family has had to endure any & everything additional this has caused them...it makes me sick to know this added to all the negative." He went on to blame "sensationalized headlines" for the overall misinterpretation, once again shifting the blame. While no one is questioning Wallis's qualifications for such a project, according to his website, Wallis never even worked with Mac Miller. It's human to get overly excited about something before all the pieces fall into place, but the director's refusal to acknowledge his role in all this miscommunication is admittedly problematic. Even so, can we blame him for wanting to use his art to tell the story of a beloved artist? What rules did he break that Rapaport and Reed did not? Who gets to tell an icon's story when they are no longer around to tell it themselves?

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