Stockholm Syndrome, a new documentary about A$AP Rocky’s 2019 incarceration in Sweden, struggles to offer a more exploratory glimpse into what the hip-hop star experienced.
“Your Honor, my life is very unique and particular.” This is the beginning of the plea A$AP Rocky makes to the Swedish judge determining his fate. It is also the central tenet of filmmaking collective The Architects’ approach to documenting Rocky’s life in the public eye. Stockholm Syndrome, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Festival, tells the story of the rapper’s 2019 incarceration in Sweden. The film uses exclusive interviews and inventive animation to narrate the complicated circumstances of that summer while also trying to capture the magnetism and allure Rocky has spent his career cultivating. But that second aim ends up creating a documentary that’s got too much on its plate. Somewhere in between the biographical anecdotes, critiques of the Swedish justice system, critiques of the American justice system, and all the connecting material, The Architects lose their focus. Unintentionally, Stockholm Syndrome becomes less a piece about a pop culture icon or an important social problem than it is about the privilege of fame.
In July 2019, A$AP Rocky was arrested for assault in Stockholm, Sweden, after an altercation on the street with a man named Mustafa Jafari. Mustafa’s injuries sent him to the hospital, but Rocky claimed self defense, as footage from passersby shows Jafari repeatedly following and questioning Rocky’s entourage. After repeated warnings from Rocky’s bodyguard, Jafari was pushed to the ground and kicked multiple times. Rocky’s team alleged harassment on the basis of Rocky’s celebrity status, while Jafari claimed to not know who he was, though Rocky’s defense lawyer Slobodan Jovicic suspected Jafari’s behavior was influenced by drugs or alcohol.
The Architects might have done better to start their film right in the middle of all this action. Stitching together a barrage of TMZ posts and radio clips could have set the tone for the racialized chaos to come. But instead, Rocky’s predicament isn’t introduced until after 10 straight minutes that read as an attempt to prove how popular and revered Rocky is. Rocky tells a version of his life story that centers his talent from a young age. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, and the highlight reel would even be welcome if Stockholm Syndrome were a more standard artist documentary. But in the context of the larger conversation, as the viewer waits to hear about his incarceration, the details about setting fashion trends and Billboard chart graphics feel in poor taste — a meritocratic approach, as though to say it’s because of Rocky’s talent, not simply his humanity, that he didn’t deserve how he was treated.
Still, there is nuance to what happened in Stockholm that media attention sped through back in 2019, and The Architects slow down the narrative to give Rocky’s story the weight it deserves. Sweden doesn’t have a bail system, and Rocky was deemed likely to tamper with evidence or be a flight risk, so he was kept largely in solitary confinement for much of summer 2019. The documentary is acute in its depiction of how cruel these conditions were, talking through the painful specifics of Rocky’s time awaiting trial. Over an animated sequence, Rocky narrates the toll his imprisonment took on his mental health — how being trapped in his mind felt like a “bad joke” and took him to difficult places in his brain, making him re-mourn the death of his best friend A$AP Yams. As Rocky’s voice becomes slower and more sorrowful, his claymation counterpart becomes more wide-eyed and frantic, traversing the walls and ceilings of his jail cell while cast in harsh, impersonal blue lighting. These visuals exist because the public will never have access to those harrowing moments of Rocky’s incarceration, and still, they are the most vulnerable and affecting part of the documentary.
Also moving are the moments we hear from Rocky’s mother, Renee Black. But for the most part, she’s only brought in to speak on sweet memories from his childhood, underutilized after the first 40 minutes. By the time Stockholm Syndrome starts to center itself on Rocky’s arrest and incarceration, Black’s presence fades away. Rocky mentions losing his older brother Ricky to gang violence, so between that, Rocky’s incarceration, and presumably her own life experiences, she is no stranger to the harms of racial issues in the United States or abroad. But the film only gives her room to discuss her anguish when she wasn’t allowed to see him in prison. When Rocky is finally freed, we never get to see her reaction. Instead, The Architects look to Kim Kardashian for insight. Kardashian is the first phone call the film shows Rocky taking, before cutting to an interview where she shares her vague perspective on everything that’s transpired: “There’s so many social justice issues that just — it gets overwhelming, honestly. Once you get in it, you realize how fucked up it really is.”
Kardashian isn’t the only talking head that feels non-essential. She’s joined by Naomi Campbell, as well as fashion designer Michèle Lamy. In combination with each other, these three women feel less like expert sources than a slideshow of fellow celebrity supporters, another unnecessary attempt to prove the reach of his fame.
Stockholm Syndrome also deals with the infamous. Donald Trump became a famed player in the narrative when Rocky’s imprisonment was in the news, speaking publicly about how the Swedish government was harming the “African American community.” And after Rocky came home, he faced outrage for not publicly thanking the president. Rocky didn’t say much about it then, but the film takes the time to get his point across — besides adding to the already international attention on the issue, Trump’s support didn’t tangibly change anything. “He didn’t free me,” A$AP Rocky says with an irritated but assured smile. It’s an important moment given Rocky’s previous history of avoiding politics in his music, and more recent attempts to clarify his positions and do better. But to slight Trump while uplifting Kardashian, who was the one to get Trump involved in the first place, makes any of that critique feel hollow.
The final third of the film focuses on Rocky’s first performances and fan interactions after being freed. This footage is intercut with a few platitudes about “making a difference,” but there’s no concrete language to prove that Stockholm was a turning point for A$AP Rocky as a person and public figure, rather than just a traumatic pit-stop that got in the way of his career. Rocky thrashes onstage, rapping with vigor and taking moments to thank his Swedish audience for supporting him. But it’s less profound than it is plain fun. Like the opening, it makes you wonder whether this story would have been better suited to be a simpler, fan-oriented film. For a documentary about an unfair incarceration premiering a year after one of the biggest anti-policing movements in American history, Stockholm Syndrome ends in a place that’s strangely apolitical.
Selome Hailu is a freelance culture writer based in Austin, Texas. She has a special love for coming-of-age films, wacky comedies and anything artsy and Black. You can find her musings on Twitter @selomeeeee.