“Is Kanye West Self-Aware?” That’s a common question these days, and the answer is simple with shades of nuance. If you listen to Kanye West’s song “Runaway,” which plainly explains the ways in which he is an asshole, then you know that he is aware of the reputation, and how his actions come across. Actually, the entire album My Dark Twisted Fantasy has a clear sense of self-awareness. Yet, even though West might realize when he’s being a jerk, he’ll still occasionally throw that awareness aside to just be a jerk. The reputation is largely overblown and has a lot of context to consider, but that oft-repeated question does have an answer.
The short film “Runaway,” which includes but is not limited to the song I just mentioned, captures this aspect of West perfectly. It has a lot of intrigue and artistry, but also parodic levels of self-indulgence that make you ask, “Is he aware how ridiculous this is?” There are sheep hanging around, seemingly random inter-cuts of explosions, and a 10+ minute ballet sequence. Also, the main character is Kanye West, who finds a phoenix bird lady and proceeds to “tame” her. This feels like a Film Student with a Big Budget Production, and the beautiful visuals suffer from the lack of restraint and over-saturation.
But once you move past the ridiculousness of West’s 30 minute music video-turned-art project, there’s actually a lot to appreciate and think about. The relationship between West and the phoenix-lady (Selita Ebanks) is one of power, control, and “domestication.” When West sings “Runaway”, you can sense the subtext: “I’m a bad person who is not going to be nice to you, and you should run.” His character is meant to be a bastard, in a sense, trying to take a representation of passion and myth and make her a subject of his will. Alone, that narrative is pretty flat, but I think West incorporates a clear lens through which to view it: racism, namely the appropriation and domestication of black culture by a dominant white culture.
I know I sound like a film major doubling in sociology right now, but I think that West has clear ambitions here, and that the depth of “Runaway” hasn’t been sufficiently recognized. I want to give one clear reading of the text so as to add to what I think is a missing conversation. And West does not hide what he wants that conversation to be about. The first overt symbol is the march of men in red KKK robes, who hold an effigy of Michael Jackson in his later years. The clear evocation of race and use of MJ is pretty clear: West wants us to think about how white culture absorbs and destroys famous black figures.
The point is emphasized further by the key scene, a banquet of black men and women in stark white suits dining in a dilapidated warehouse. All of the servers are white, and West is clearly trying to evoke a play on a scene of upper class white culture, but inverted. The ballet dancers also represent this symbol in reverse, as ballet is pretty traditionally considered a white cultural thing, but is set to West’s “Runaway,” with the dancers clad in black tutus. In effect, West appears to hint at the nature of appropriation as an element of power, and that those who use their power to do things like this are ultimately looking to tame and calm the passion of others. It’s an aspect of white culture, but it also transcends to any and all groups of people who desire power and emulate the powerful. The phoenix narrative has to be considered in this context, and thus becomes clearly about the nature of people exerting their power on other people.
All that being said, the phoenix story line does have a lot of stylization in the form of sexualization, which indicates an unawareness of how that appropriation and power abuse includes the way women are usually sexualized in media. Still, West’s story isn’t as simple as any one reading, and thus that aspect probably changes depending on the way you view the story. I know I’m looking at this short movie that many might consider a vanity project with an over-serious eye, but after watching so many lazy stabs at arthouse with nothing to say, it’s nice to see West continue his push to just make interesting stuff. His penchant to provoke is truly impressive.
Also, “Runaway” is just kind of fun to watch. The visuals are stunning in a lot of cases, and in my opinion, West’s music is great. It’s catchy, bombastic, and a tinge experimental. It’s the reason West gets to publicly be a prick but still be respected. “Runaway” isn’t going to change your opinion on the man, but if you’re at least neutral on West, I think this movie is worth a viewing. Or, if you’re pressed for time, just put on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and enjoy.