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“I felt like my son’s story needed to be told,” Cleopatra Bernard says, explaining the decision behind making the documentary, which details how Florida teenager Jahseh Onfroy, a.k.a. XXXTentacion, became one of the most-streamed artists on the planet before his death in 2018.Any professional accomplishments, however, went hand in hand with acts of violence and his alleged battery of girlfriend Geneva Ayala, who is among those interviewed, with photos providing evidence of the brutal extent of that abuse.
“So she’s scared. She thinks I’m gonna kill her,” Onfroy says in one recording, despite having insisted repeatedly that Ayala was lying about him. Videos also capture various fights and assaults on others, which in essence became part of his brand.
Bernard concedes that image worked to her son’s advantage, observing about XXXTentacion’s career, “He figured out a way to get attention to himself, and even though it was negative things, it worked.” To her credit, she also meets during the film with Ayala, who experienced threats and social-media backlash from his fans at the time because of his legal troubles.
Still, director Sabaah Folayan faces a daunting task in presenting Onfroy’s personal struggles and the victimization of Ayala while also highlighting his brief career and talent, mostly by relying upon interviews with friends and family.
At one point, asked about Onfroy’s excesses, Bernard says, “Even if he’s Hitler, that’s my son,” adding of her support for him, “Any mother would have done the same thing, I would think” — statements that seemingly cry out for follow-up questions that don’t come.
The production auspices (Bernard is credited as an executive producer along with former manager Solomon Sobande) cloud the exercise, giving the documentary the feel, or at least the appearance, of a licensed product, especially since its premiere coincides with the posthumous release of a new song collaboration with Kanye West.
“Look At Me: XXXTENTACION” focuses on the good that XXXTentacion did through his relationship with fans, featuring some of them discussing how his music helped them through difficult times. Yet there’s little consideration given to the questionable aspects of that, such as his assertion, “This is a cult, not a fan base.”
At its core the documentary conveys the factors that shaped his work, and contends, based on the testimony of those close to him, that Onfroy was in the process of making changes to his life when he died.
As for what transpired before then, “Look at Me” offers glimpses, but it’s not a fully developed picture.
“Look At Me: XXXTENTACION” premieres May 26 on Hulu.