Top Documentary about a New Yorker for 2010

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

SAMO and OZ in NYC

A Preview of Ugly-Kid Gumo

To create graffiti is to engage in urban guerilla warfare.  Renegades of refinement, graffiti artists take cold, inanimate slabs of concrete and other disregarded objects from our society and manufacture fleeting masterpieces.   The fact that these works are both illegal and transient is what makes this medium one of the most authentic forms of expression and those who lurk in the shadows of night, spray cans in hand, to partake in this illicit act, mavericks of culture.    In the ‘80s, graffiti art was an extension of hip-hop, a subculture emerging from the Bronx that also fused a particular style of music and dancing.  Street artists also started to become recognized as rising stars in the international art scene – artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who along with Al Diaz created the SAMO Graffiti in the late ‘70s and also signed his early work as SAMO.   

Following along the same vein as these iconic artists is a young street artist from France named Ugly-Kid Gumo.  Gumo was born in France in 1980 near Paris, the same year in which Basquiat began to kill the SAMO legend by writing “SAMO IS DEAD” all over downtown.   Using the raw electricity of the streets as his canvas, Gumo uses his art as a mirror to reflect back to society the Babylonian condition in which it finds itself.  On November 20, I received a slight introduction to the chaos Gumo evolves from when I attended OZ le visage du mal, a single-evening preview of his work.  Using spray paint, photography and other heterogeneous schemes, Gumo related a story that was a stark, unflinching dose of reality.  It was jarring, emotional, pensive and powerful, causing my stomach to stir from the intensity.  Crude faces illustrated on white pieces of paper and posted against a cardboard backdrop exuded the essence of street culture and were reminiscent of Basquiat’s work.  The amalgamation of early ‘90s American and Parisian hip-hop added to the gritty element of Gumo’s chaos. 

While walking around the preview, meticulously ingesting all of Gumo’s art, I was ensnared by the soul of the pieces, which may be Gumo’s true intention.  I was particularly attached to the series of faces constructed from scrapings of graffiti Gumo completed.  With these pieces Gumo accomplished a rare feat – he transformed a momentary work of art into a fresh conversation piece.    Another series that captivated my attention were spray painted faces with heads shaped like keyholes.


As I looked through what appeared to be a keyhole into the primitive faces of Oz, I realize these striking images speak. They speak for the same impoverished people that used mattresses as trampolines, cardboard boxes as dance floors, parks as clubs and trains as canvases.  They speak for the youth that carry their discontentment on their shoulders like backpacks.  Oz is omnipresent – it is New York City, Paris or any place where there is a disconnect with certain members of the community, where people are lost and slip through the cracks.  It is there that Gumo finds the chaos and translates it the world.

Adding to the compelling artwork is Gumo’s personal story.  He is not a man that comes from the ghetto, in fact he was raised in the suburbs, but he identifies with a struggle most people choose to overlook in their quest for recognition and riches.  I find his empathy to be extremely admirable.  It also transforms him from a mere artist to a griot, chronicling the history of our time through mixed-media and poetic expressions.  Gumo is represented in New York by the Marianne Nems Gallery.  The preview was only to wet our appetite for a full scale exhibition coming in March 2011.  Gumo’s work transported me back to the New York City of my youth, where the grit was as thick as the humidity in the summertime.  Before Times Square received consumer-driven porcelain veneers and hip-hop lost its soul.  I am eager to see more of Gumo’s work – it is definitely not the same ole shit.

Photos and Slideshow:  F.A.M.E NYC Editor