Stratifying salvation and sin, Kanye West’s music video for “Jesus Walks” blurs religious idioms like good and evil, shedding the archaic veil that separates the secular from the sacred. By pairing obvious religious imagery and symbolism with the profanity of drugs, prostitution, and racism, “Jesus Walks” ultimately imparts the notion that the dichotomy of good and evil is a farce because the wicked and pious alike walk with the divine.
*See the Kayne West “Jesus Walks” music video
Interview With Director Chris Milk
Music Video Wire: Could you explain how the idea for the video evolved?
Chris Milk: I was trying to build the video as a little opera. The song has very distinctive voices floating around it and I was attempting to line those voices up with different characters in the piece. The intent was for every character to be responsible for singing a different part of the song. There is the prison guard at the beginning who yells “Ready, hut!” and later “we eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast.” There is the prisoner who answers, “y’all eat pieces of shit?” The chain gang collectively sings, “Jesus walks with them”. The little jump-roping girls sing the “Jesus Walks” chorus chant. The smallest girl raps the “hell yeah!” part in answer to “we be living in hell here.” The drug smuggler’s stripper girlfriend in the back seat sings the soulful female gospel part. Everyone sings the “Ohhhhhhhhhh ohhhhhhhh” in the last section. And if you want to get really technical, the oboe part is “sung” by the fleeing drug dealers’ car and later by the burning cross as it falls.
MVW: “Jesus Walks” is your second video with Kanye, how is he to work with on set?
CM: Kanye loves film and really wants to understand everything. He’s like a kid in a candy store on set sometimes. He’s always listens carefully to direction and works incredibly hard to make it the best video he possibly can.
MVW: The contrast between Kanye dressed in white and the on coming fire, stunning! What was the process technically?
CM: The flames were shot practically in that hallway set. Fire will only crawl across a ceiling like that so the ceiling section was duplicated onto the walls and floor. Kanye was shot performing in the same tunnel in front of a small green screen with flame bars illuminating him.
MVW: There were several distinct looks of the video, scenes with Kanye, black and white, car chase scene, how did you work with your dp on creating the different “looks”?
CM: Originally I was considering doing it all in black and white but I quickly realized that with all the intertwining storylines it would be very difficult to figure out your geography in the video at any one point. The different color palettes primary function is to let you know which vignette you’re in.
I had an idea for how every section should look except the jump roping little girls. Dave Hussy really figured that one out in the Telecine. I created a set of rules for each vignette for Danny Hiele the DP and myself to work within. Danny is brilliant at taking my set of fixed concrete walls and building a beautiful garden within them. He’s a virtuoso in my book.
The chain gang world is set in a black burned out valley with white uniforms so black and white film was the obvious choice. Danny shot Plus-X negative and then struck a reversal print, which we then transferred from. In the chain gang world the camera most of the time is either on a dolly or a technocrane so the shots are very smooth and composed. The drug smugglers word is super hot and saturated so we shot on reversal. All of the camera moves are very kinetic and hand held. The KKK guy’s world is very desaturated so we flashed our film and printed our negative. Almost all of KKK shots are static lock-offs.
MVW: Seeing the cross on fire rolling down the hill, the Klans man picking it up, catching himself on fire, strong symbolism, what are your thoughts about the scene? Also, near the end of the video there are several images that we see briefly, lightning, overhead shot, painting etc. Do you feel the last few seconds of the video sum up the overall message?
CM: The message of the song, which becomes the subtext of the video, is that Jesus walks with everyone. Sinner, saint, murderer, drug dealer, it doesn’t matter. So my idea was to take these morally reprehensible characters and carefully weave in Jesus/biblical iconography into their stories signifying God is with them. The chain gang prisoner assumes the crucifix position when the guard is harassing him. Then the guard stabs him in his ribs with a baton like the Roman soldier did to Jesus. The drug smugglers’ kilos of coke are transformed into doves, a modern miracle. The little girl jump-roping wears leather and wood sandals. The KKK guy is dragging his burning cross up the mountain, as Jesus did in the precursor to his crucifixion. Kanye is performing in a room which transitions between hellish flames and the angelic halos of fluorescent light tubes on the ceiling. That section dives into the secondary theme of the duality of man. The idea that a person can be simultaneously both good and evil. Or, if you prefer, the more Christlike notion of being both human and divine.
So obviously that’s a lot to get into one video and I knew that much of it would be lost in the nature of its translation. The biggest concern I had (and Kanye as well) was tying a KKK guy into Jesus. That, suffice to say, is a little tricky in a hip-hop video. So far no one has objected though. In fact, some Christian groups have even sung the praises of the video’s ultimately positive message.
I was very careful with that storyline though. The way it is intended to translate is this. It is God conceivably that blows over the KKK guy’s cross causing it to roll down the mountain. The KKK guy’s hate is so all-consuming that he tries to carry the physical manifestation of his hate back up the mountain for all to see. He is so blinded by that hate that he neglects to take into account the burning robe factor and gets himself into trouble. But God forgives him, and causes it to rain thereby extinguishing him. It’s a baptism of sorts, washing away his sins.
So yeah, I doubt anyone got all that but it’s nice to at least make an attempt to build in some layers to it all. The song is really powerful and deep so it sort of necessitates going the extra metaphorical step with everything.