Who knew the real ‘Basquiat’?
The trailer for Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is addictive viewing. Dizzy Gillespie sings his signature tune "Salt Peanuts" over a montage of the young Basquiat painting, dancing, letting a puppy gnaw at his oversize sweater, buzzing through a gallery crowd—indeed the most radiant object in the room.
Spliced into these mostly black-and-white shots are bursts of color and text from his famous paintings. Basquiat was said to "talk" to his creative heroes through his art, so the use of Gillespie's be-bop stylings over these images is inspired: As Basquiat says in the documentary, be-bop was his favorite genre. Then the title tumbles in, in perfect rhythm with a drum solo. The spindly font evokes the artist's brand perfectly: lean, spry, regal. A Basquiat-style chalk-outline crown dots the "i", venerating a People's Prince.
A slightly longer version of this montage opens the film. Like the trailer, it is an exuberant work of art in itself. Director Tamra Davis' credit falls into place last, with a cymbal crash boldly tying her to her subject, whom she befriended in 1983 when he arrived at the Los Angeles gallery where she was working. This sequence announces that Davis means to give us the essential Basquiat; that she was unusually close to him.
Based on the 88 minutes that follow, it seems like she was. But the most disturbing and fascinating notion that emerges here is... maybe none of these people were all that close to Basquiat after all. Nearly every interview subject is a white person from the art world that made the Haitian-American Neo-Expressionist wealthy in his early 20's and took him for a wild ride (and vice versa) that ended in his death by heroin overdose in 1988 at age 27.
Where are Basquiat's relatives? His homeboys from Brooklyn? We do hear a little from his estranged running buddy Al Diaz (co-creator of the locally famous SAMO graffiti tag). And in the informal video interview that Davis shot in 1985 (and which forms the spine of this documentary), the painter mentions that he was once the "black sheep of the family" until he "started doing well." Davis cuts to a still of him dressed like a stockbroker, sitting next to a desktop computer. We get glimpses of the high school dropout's strained relationship with his accountant father, which prompted him to run away from home at 17. But, as with another Basquiat screen biography by a friend, Julian Schnabel's Basquiat (1995), the people of color are almost as rare as they were in SoHo galleries in the 1980s.
No matter. Davis evokes the specter of racism with a few pointed anecdotes and one amazing clip of Basquiat getting testy with an interviewer who dares call his work "primal." "Primal? Like 'primate'? Like an ape?" On the much more laid-back Davis interview tape, Basquiat dismisses certain critics as "mostly just racists." She also benefits from testimony by Fred Braithwaite, aka Fab 5 Freddy, the black graffiti artist-turned-hip-hop historian who was ever-present in the downtown arts scene during Basquiat's reign. Freddy describes Basquiat's rage at cab drivers who refused to stop for them when they were both confirmed VIPs. Writer Nelson George discusses the be-bop and African-American historical influences in Basquiat's work that some critics complained were missing from Schnabel's biopic.
Davis is smart to focus initially on Basquiat's rise to fame in a raucous downtown creative scene because, let's face it, that stuff is endlessly fascinating, no matter how often the tall tales get spun. The Algonquin Roundtable, the Harlem Renaissance, Hard Bop, the Surrealists, the Nouvelle Vague, Warhol's Factory, Punk... The romanticism of a collective of visionaries that forms spontaneously in the spirit of an age is always fun to sample. In this case, Davis pulls together a Greatest Hits survey of the NYC film-making, music, art and fashion worlds that Basquiat, barely out of his teens, was positioning himself as a leader of.
Then she breaks your heart. The Jean-Michel Basquiat that appears in the "fall" portion of this rise-and-fall story is not a radiant child, but a broken one. I used to find it slightly insulting that Schnabel's Basquiat seemed to suggest that the artist died mainly from the grief of losing his newfound mentor-collaborator, Andy Warhol, the art superstar who seemed to be exploiting his protege's fresh fame. But now I get it: Davis draws convincing testimony from those who were there that Andy and Jean-Michel were true soulmates. What does it mean to have a creative kindred spirit who is white and already in the pantheon of artists when you are young, black and celebrated by many of the taste-makers as a novelty and a token? If you are a serious artist and a sensitive soul, it means tragedy.
Davis sketches the tragedy in fine detail in the closing passages of The Radiant Child. With Andy dead, the scenesters who helped him spend his money gone and the critics onto the next flavor of the month, Basquiat retreated into his drugs.
But the key to the real tragedy—and to Basquiat's playful-serious art—is in a reminiscence by Al Diaz of his last encounter with his old homeboy, who tried to make amends with him shortly before his death. Jean-Michel gave him a painting that had the inscription "TO SAMO FROM SAMO." What had kept these soulmates apart all that time? Basquiat's paintings sing the answer: America.