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HBO’s DMX documentary is as complicated as the man himself

Watching the rapper in the last year of his life, it felt like there was hope

He popped up on a Verzuz with Snoop Dogg last July looking healthy and happy and reminding everyone that he was once the biggest music star in the world. The next few months would feature viral videos of X, real name Earl Simmons, dancing to ’70s soul, offering a different side to the snarling, lyrically violent persona that made him famous. And when he was a guest on Noreaga’s Drink Champs show in February, a three-hour journey of stories, laughter and healing ensued. X seemed to have found happiness.

Eight weeks later, he’d be found dead from a cocaine-induced heart attack. 

As painful as DMX’s death was for many who grew up loving him (I’d just written a profile where I talked to people close to him about his newfound happiness and was shattered by his death), there was a level of peace in knowing the joy in his final chapter. 

The HBO documentary, DMX: Don’t Try To Understand, airing Thursday, is a jolt of unsettling reality and a reminder of the demons Simmons had to face. Director Chris Frierson had unfettered access to DMX, starting as the rapper was released from a yearlong bid in jail for tax fraud.

Earl “DMX” Simmons (center) with his son Exodus Simmons (left) and fiancee Desiree Lindstrom (right).

HBO

“I’m into characters and the way the media defines them,” said Frierson. “DMX’s music means so much to people and it’s unfair that his narrative was defined by the media more than himself or his art. I wanted to set out to find out the veracity and untruths of the Earl we saw on VH1 and TMZ.”

Cameras follow DMX through his old ‘hood, documenting his relationship with his children and their mothers, his drug addiction and the rehabilitation that led to his career rejuvenation. The 80-minute doc gives us the unfiltered DMX, even the parts we want to turn our heads from.

To be frank, there are parts of the documentary that made me feel wrong for watching: DMX and his fiancee, Desiree Lindstrom, argue about his relationships with other women while cameras are peering around corners and Lindstrom is begging him to turn his mic off; the rapper cursing about the amount of money the other mothers of his children are receiving from him; and the night DMX’s drug addiction sent him to rehab. The latter scene included voice messages and phone calls from friends and family concerned about his well-being. It just felt invasive and icky.

Frierson explained his thinking behind including these difficult moments: “[The documentary] was meant to be the truest representation of the man at this point in his life and to alter those things doesn’t speak truth to the reality of the situation,” he said. “One of the things about Earl and a lot of those uncomfortable situations aren’t so uncomfortable to him. This is him. He didn’t want the project to sugarcoat anything.”

The 80-minute documentary, DMX: Don’t Try To Understand, gives us the unfiltered DMX, even the parts we want to turn our heads from.

HBO

The hardest scene for me to watch came during a short interaction with his toddler, Exodus. The boy was playing with a phone and DMX grabs it, cursing and snarling at him. Then he sits Exodus on his lap, trying to comfort him, but he can’t do it without the hypermasculinity and the stereotypical, “You’re tough as s—, right? Nobody wants to hear that,” even as he tries to show physical affection. We’re watching a man at odds with himself — battling the history of abuse he endured from his own mother while trying to love his son the best way he knows how. And the way he knows is to continue the verbal abuse even as his instinctive reaction is to provide the physical affection his crying son craves. Seconds later, the two are laughing together playing Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.

This is the struggle at the heart of the documentary and DMX himself as he tries to overcome his demons and also find joy. The culmination of that experience comes in the movie’s most emotional scene, which finds DMX back in his old Yonkers neighborhood talking to two young would-be rappers. As one MC raps, DMX interrupts, inviting him to rap more passionately, then demonstrates what he means. Here we see the DMX of legend: the battle rapper whose name rang across New York to the point Def Jam came knocking. Seconds later, he’s talking to the other MC about letting out his pain. The second rapper starts sobbing. DMX hugs them both, putting all three of their heads together.

It’s these moments that remind us of the rawness that captivated fans more than 20 years ago. It’s a reminder of why I hung on every word DMX barked the one time I saw him live in 2019 as he went from hits like “Party Up” to ending his show with a prayer. These moments in the film feel like a proper farewell.

It’s unrealistic to expect a documentary on DMX to only show the good parts — like the way he mended his relationship with his oldest son (who, with DMX, was previously the subject of an episode of Iyanla: Fix My Life) and is able to celebrate leaving rehab with his ex-wife. But viewers should know that, especially in the context of how his life ended, the documentary’s last chilling scene is at once heartwarming and heartbreaking.

I can’t decide whether DMX: Don’t Try To Understand is a good documentary, or even if that matters. What’s more important to me is how it made me feel about him, the end of his life and what it means to have hope for someone you love. I view the documentary as I saw his life, choosing to remember the happy parts and the heart of a man who wanted to live and love as hard as he hurt.

David Dennis, Jr. is a senior writer at The Undefeated and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.