About 45 minutes into HBO’s DMX: Don’t Try to Understand documentary, Dark Man X lets his life’s purpose be known, “To be an inspiration to someone that I don’t know.” Seventy-four million records later and even following his tragic passing at the age of 50 on April 9, DMX is still a beacon of hope to those he doesn’t know.
Director Christopher Frierson and a film crew followed DMX — born Earl Simmons — for about a year from the second he stepped out of a West Virginia prison on a snowy day in January 2019 after serving a year behind bars on federal tax evasion charges.
The COVID-19 pandemic halted the film’s momentum once the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival was postponed. It wasn’t until around Christmas when HBO/The Ringer stepped in to pick up the film and add it to their Music Box series. Executive produced by Bill Simmons, the series boasts a diverse lineup of films surrounding the late Juice WRLD, saxophonist Kenny G, Alanis Morissette, and ’99 Woodstock.
Frierson insisted on the film remaining the same even after DMX’s death to provide the audience with an authentic snapshot of what would be his second to last year of life and last year on the road.
“I was like, ‘Nothing, we don’t do anything,’” the Michigan native tells Billboard. “The intent of the project is a time capsule and a snapshot of a man’s life. In that period of life, we see all these different thematic things. You don’t need to see, ‘Oh, then he dies.’ He is who he is and he’s raw and unapologetic.”
Being on the road with X, Frierson, a former Mass Appeal employee, explains he went to more Subways, Dave & Buster’s and Texas Roadhouses than he’s willing to admit. DMX would trade having a VIP table at Marquee for a gritty dive bar with a decent pool table where he can hide in plain sight any night.
A portrait of Earl “DMX” Simmons through a very tumultuous year.
— HBO Documentaries (@HBODocs) November 25, 2021
Don’t Try To Understand takes viewers on a thrilling rollercoaster ride featuring euphoric highs and depressing lows through the growling underdog to Grand Champ story of DMX. There are heartwarming moments shown when the Yonkers legend is in his element performing, reconnecting with his eldest son Xavier, and visiting his old stomping grounds of School Street and Andrus Orchard school to speak with kids.
On the flip side, there are demoralizing scenes where DMX would go missing for days at a time and the film crew was left scrambling while X battled his own demons and trauma that have been present throughout his decorated career.
Dark Man X represents the apex of authenticity in hip-hop. X wore his heart on his sleeve and didn’t sacrifice an ounce of integrity while becoming a global icon. His vulnerability while pulling trauma from the depths of his soul, willingness to lyrically decapitate anyone standing in his way, and love of the sport rather than the fame that came with rapping endeared him to his diehard fanbase and are all qualities seemingly going extinct in hip-hop’s current mainstream landscape.
“And it ain’t even about the dough, it’s about gettin’ down for what you stand for yo,” DMX raps on 2003’s “X Gon’ Give It To Ya.” A code he still lived by decades later when signing his 2019 deal with Def Jam — a label Lyor Cohen credited DMX with saving in the late ’90s — he was uninterested in hearing the terms of his contract and was ready to ink it the second he stepped into the Def Jam offices.
“That’s what Earl is,” Frierson adds. “In the deck I wrote, ‘The realest motherf—-r out!’ You can’t really separate the two. The DMX persona in some way is a character and him at his most real and most honest. Maybe Dark Man X is a pure manifestation of releasing trauma.”
DMX: Don’t Try to Understand is now available to stream on HBO Max. Watch the trailer below.