Many working artists have exploited the tools of social media to craft their fame, but Tekashi 6ix9ine — aka Danny Hernandez — exists inside them. The Bushwick-born 24-year-old rapper and Instagram celebrity spent the last five years eking out the most provocative and disturbing career in modern music, though more people can recognize his aggressive face tattoos and rainbow-colored hair than any of his compositions. A convicted felon who flaunts his criminality in record-breaking Instagram Lives, grotesque sexual deviance, and pretty much anything else it takes to grab maximum eyeballs, Hernandez may be a lost cause buried under angry posturing and a blaring soundtrack. Even some of his hip hop fans think he’s a traitor who snitched to the FBI to avoid additional jail time. But all that noise has kept him in the public eye. In the process of eluding the justice system and upsetting the bulk of the Internet that doesn’t delight in his infamy, he thrives on its rage.
As a homegrown persona who tells his own tale, Hernandez defies any attempt to understand his essence beyond the boundaries of his act. That makes “’69: The Saga of Danny Hernandez,” director Vikram Gandhi’s unnerving deep-dive into his subject’s rise, something of a lost cause from the outset. Yet even as his subject remains elusive, Gandhi manages to deliver a thoughtful primer on the Tekashi story as it currently stands, and gives this serial troublemaker the tragic documentary he deserves.
“’69” was produced in secret and dropped on Hulu as a surprise, which makes sense since Hernandez likes to control his own narrative and would likely have obfuscated this sobering approach to his life in advance of its release. It’s obvious from the outset that Gandhi can’t get access through the most immediate channels, as the movie begins with an interview outside the Brooklyn apartment interrupted by residents shouting him off the scene. But there’s enough remnants of Hernandez’s story strewn throughout the neighborhood for Gandhi, who narrates the ensuing overview, to pick up the pieces.
While they don’t reveal much new information, the investigation helps clarify the underlying hustle behind the stunts: A first-generation Mexican-American raised by a single mother, surrounded by gang life and socioeconomic anxiety from his childhood, Hernandez’s rapid-fire transformation into Tekashi comes across as a desperate survival act. “’69” unfolds through several dramatic chapter headings to show how an alienated neighborhood kid quickly found his calling in viral stardom. From “Danny the Bodega Boy” through “The Troll,” each passage of the movie provides a clear-eyed account of the way Hernandez found his assaultive purpose. I
t begins with his sexually explicit homemade clothing resonating on Reddit, and continues through his alarming physical transformation and overnight success in the strange arena of “Soundcloud Rap.” Gandhi zips through the bizarre circuitous path to Tekashi’s global stardom, including his strange popularity in Slovakia and the construction of his confrontational “Gummo” video, which goes much further than its Harmony Korine-directed namesake in showcasing the performative outrage of an ostracized scene. The success of “Gummo” led to a rush of new Tekashi content, and social media feuds galore, but behind all the likes and user engagement, a darker storm took shape.
Gandhi tracks much of Hernandez’s career through insights from people who have worked with him at key junctures, neighborhood friends, and even his tattoo artist with a dizzying, energetic flair. But the tone of “’69” shifts into true crime territory as Hernandez enters more bleak developments, starting with Hernandez’s decision to post an underage girl having sex and continuing through his involvement in neighborhood robberies to address mounting feuds. Snagged by the FBI after his undocumented driver caved to pressure from ICE, Hernandez seemed to finally reach his comeuppance in a much-ballyhooed court scene that culminated, in a jarring form of cultural serendipity, with the day of Trump’s impeachment. But that moment (which included Hernandez’s long-lost father making an emotional appearance for the cameras) proved less climatic than transitionary, as it enabled Hernandez to solidify the monstrous image he’d been chasing all along.
While assembling these details into an absorbing character study, Gandhi never sanitizes his subject. The movie’s most troubling voice comes from Hernandez’s ex-girlfriend Sara Molina, speaking from an undisclosed location, where she offers frank testimonials about his abusive behavior and disinterest in the daughter they had together in their teens. None of this is news, but it helps elucidate the underlying problem with any attempt to celebrate Hernandez’s creative inclinations. No matter the catchiness of a few beats, Hernandez was ultimately just chasing the millennial dream — “I just had to make a loud presence,” he says in one interview clip — but he eventually became its worst nightmare: a supervillain not only elevated by his misdeeds but defined by them. “I don’t even know if this is a joke anymore,” Hernandez says in court, but since then, he’s been compelled to have the last laugh.
In his 2011 documentary “Kumaré,” Gandhi portrayed a fake guru and managed to gain genuine followers in the process. With Hernandez, he’s found a genuine charlatan who has taken that scam to epic heights. It’s no grand stretch to see the connection between Hernandez’s brand of trolling and Trumpism. “’69” doesn’t overplay that connection, but it grounds the drama in the immediacy of its moment.
Despite these big-picture takeaways, “’69” has an unsteady purpose, and sometimes struggles to fuse its deeper observations with the sheer harrowing trajectory of its subject’s story. At times, Gandhi’s approach proves more frustrating than illuminating, with the eerie, pulsating score and stern interview subjects settling into a dismaying whir. Gandhi falls back on the first-person approach to fill in the gaps and capture his own contradictory relationship to the project (at one point he feels “deep sympathy” for Hernandez, then wonders if he’s “fallen into the trap of a troll”) but these observations are self-evident from the start.
Yet “’69: The Saga of Danny Hernandez” manages to lay out the fragments of the Tekashi story well enough to cast a valuable spotlight on the nature of his fame. Nobody documents Tekashi better than Tekashi himself, but there’s a much larger system in play that enabled that fundamental truth to take hold. Gandhi diagnoses the problem, but makes it clear there’s no solution in sight. He’s made a compelling behind-the-scenes window into quite the abrasive story, while leaving the impression that it’s still locked in a fragile, hopeless first act.
“’69: The Saga of Danny Hernandez” is now streaming on Hulu.