It’s been over twenty years since the footage of esteemed/adored/regarded graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was filmed by Tamra Davis, a “friend” of Basquiat’s while he was in his L.A. phase. That footage is now a documentary called Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. You may detect a hint of derisiveness in my tone when I refer to Davis as Basquiat’s friend, but it’s only because I find it a hair exploitive that she would turn the footage into a movie in the wake of directing 2002′s Crossroads (that’s right, the one starring Britney “Hot Mess” Spears). Since then, Davis has directed television episodes only. And while I would like to have faith in the assumption that she created the project out of appreciation for the mind of a genius, a part of me can’t resist thinking there’s an ulterior motive. Though in Davis’ defense, the Basquiat crowd is definitely a niche audience, but that doesn’t mean the film won’t work to the benefit of restoring her credibility.
The film opens with an eerily prophetic poem from Langston Hughes, called “The Genius Child.” The poem reads as follows:
This is a song for the genius child.
Sing it softly, for the song is wild.
Sing it softly as ever you can -
Lest the song get out of hand.
Nobody loves a genius child.
Can you love an eagle,
Tame or wild?
Can you love an eagle,
Wild or tame?
Can you love a monster
Of frightening name?
Nobody loves a genius child.
Kill him – and let his soul run wild.
The utter accuracy of this poem is astonishing. It is as though Langston Hughes crafted the words expressly with Basquiat in mind. From there, the film proceeds to inform us of the gloom and metaphorical alluvion that took place in the New York of the late 70s and early 80s. Because of how cheap it was to live in the East Village at that time, artists were actually able to be artists without having to have the motherfucking scourge known as a day job. Basquiat, already a native of Brooklyn, didn’t have too much difficulty making the transition to downtown New York, where he essentially lived as a vagabond tagging the walls of SoHo with the moniker of Samo (an abbreviation for Same Old Shit). This notoriety would allow Basquiat to parlay his name recognition into a loosely autobiographical film called Downtown 81, following Basquiat through the sullied streets of downtown in search of someone who will buy one of his paintings.
Gradually, the downtown scene came to consist of several key players, such as Keith Haring, Debbie Harry, Thurston Moore, Fab Five Freddy (a frequent cohort of Basquiat’s), Madonna (who naturally had a brief sexual dalliance with Basquiat around 1982, referred to in several of his paintings), the already firmly established Julian Schnabel, and, eventually, Jean-Michel Basquiat. These well-known faces of the Lower East Side became known as “The Downtown 500″ (though I find it hard to grasp that there could be five hundred famous people within such a small radius).
In spite of Basquiat’s immense strife at the start of his career, it didn’t take long for people to start asking questions about who the elusive Samo was and where they could get more of his unique take on graffiti art. Diego Cortez, the first supportive curator of Basquiat’s work, was more than willing to help the young prodigy move forward in his career, noting of the 1980s New York art scene, “I was tired of white people, white walls, and white wine.”
Once Cortez started promoting Basquiat’s art, it took about less than a second for the 20 year old to explode. Soon after, curator Annina Nosei was offering the young artist a basement studio on 100 Prince Street (currently the building where Prada offshoot Miu Miu has taken up residence). At last, Basquiat was given the space and the freedom to create limitlessly.
However, as many critics and fans have speculated, becoming famous at such a young age and continuing to ascend into the limelight at such a rapid pace forced Basquiat to fall even harder. In 1986, Basquiat had a joint exhibition with mentor/friend Andy Warhol. Rather than being praised as one might have expected, the show was unanimously panned, seen by outsiders as a way for Warhol to cash in on a trend and a way for Basquiat to gain acclaim from the largely white-dominated art world.
Another speculative reason within the documentary for Basquiat’s insistence on turning to heroin for comfort and validation was the lack of such predilections from the tastemakers of art and the curators of major museums like the MoMA, still largely dominated by a crusty, oldish white demographic. In an early TV appearance, the interviewer talking to Basquiat makes the mistake of telling him that his work is “primal.” Basquiat retorts, “You mean like an ape?” It is unquestionable that Basquiat was constantly under pressure to prove himself as a representative for the “black community.” And while the “white people are assholes” bandwagon is already pretty fucking full, in this case, the sentiment rings true.
What Jean Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child seems to be saying is that all geniuses are subconsciously doomed to spiral out of control, too sensitive and too lonely to exist in the same world with the rest of us, merely grateful admirers of the work.