Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
First released at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010, then released nationwide in June, Jean Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is Tamara Davis’ visual love letter profiling one the most enigmatic, creative entities that ever passed through the streets of Gotham.
When Basquiat died at age 27 in 1988 of a heroin overdose, he had already been recognized as a prodigy who was equally known for being infamous. Since his untimely death, he has ascended beyond the classifications that hindered him in life to become one of the most famous artists of his generation. Being the first black fine artist to not only break in America, but internationally, he reached a pantheon of that few black artists attain – a trailblazer burdened with the responsibility of being the first, a star that ultimately becomes an anomaly that neither well-meaning liberals nor conservatives know what to do with.
Brilliant and tragic…beautiful and scarred…extremely personal and striking, this documentary presents an introspective portrait of Basquiat’s life through rare footage and interviews with Basquiat, as well as remarks from friends, colleagues and ex-girlfriends. The film begins with Langston Hughes’ poem Genius Child. It chronicles his move from Brooklyn to NYC in the late 70s, which was laden with crime and economic hardship, the forming of the band Gray (comprised of himself, Shannon Dawson, Michael Holman, Wayne Clifford, Nicholas Taylor, and Vincent Gallo and named after Gray’s Anatomy by Henry Gray) and his rise as a star in the downtown art scene from the SAMO graffiti to his first shows. It also provides a comprehensive review of Basquiat’s work, paying homage to other artists, and chronicling the black experience in America, as well as details his isolation, becoming a prisoner of the fame he sought, his descent into heroin addiction, his friendship and collaboration with Andy Warhol and his grieving and further spiral into drugs upon Warhol’s death.
The 90-minute film ends with observations about his last show in April 1988 (a bleak prophecy or a massive cry for help), a pictorial retrospective of his work and the man himself and Fab 5 Freddy reciting Langston Hughes’ Genius Child, changing the last line to “Free him – and let his soul run wild.”
When he died, Basquiat left over 1,000 drawing and paintings. What I realized after watching this documentary is that the true last line of the poem is more accurate, “Kill him – and let his soul run wild.” Was it really the heroin that killed Jean-Michel Basquiat, or was the katzenjammer of loneliness that often shadows success? Maybe Jean-Michel Basquiat was murdered long ago by the press, the art elitists that control the New York and international art scene and straphangers that latched on to his coattails for a ride. Maybe the heroin overdose really did free him to allow his soul to run unbridled and unburdened.
Artists, especially great ones, always offer profound commentary about the history of our world and reflect the current circumstances of our society, sometimes even predicting it in their work. Basquiat was known for using the expression “Boom for real.” Perhaps he knew he was not meant to wither and age, but instead, he was more like a comet illuminating the sky, fleeting, wondrous to behold and leaving fiery fragments behind – evidence that signifies that what was witnessed truly existed.
To learn more or order Jean Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, click http://www.jean-michelbasquiattheradiantchild.com/.