Tamra Davis’ film Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is an affecting documentary on the rise and fall of the artworld superstar. Davis was a friend of Basquiat’s who started filming interviews with him as their friendship developed. She’d amassed a significant amount of footage by the time of his death but, as she says, she put the film in a drawer and didn’t think about it for many years. What you get is wonderful interview footage of with Basquiat, as well as many of the people he was close to in those years of his ascent and decline. And, the film is well worth seeing, if only for the amount of his work that is shown.
But I don’t think there’s ever a way to watch a film about Jean-Michel Basquiat and not feel that impending sense of dread. I certainly remember feeling that while watching Jeffrey Wright in Julian Schnabel’s biopic, and I definitely felt it while watching one, too. The whole experience of watching the film, for me, is poignant. Usually, it’s because we recognize potential that is smothered by death at a young age. In this case, it’s watching him produce so much of his prodigious body of work and wanting him to be around to enjoy the acclaim that really followed him after his death that, yet again, I found myself hoping against reason that somehow this story would turn out differently and he wouldn’t be dead by age 27.
Of course, I can’t help but feel the inevitable even more sharply because I watch the movie as a black man. And I think the film does a great job of tackling the race issue head-on. But, the fact was, there seemed to be very few people around Basquiat who cared about him beyond what he could produce and what they could profit from. He had a meteoric rise: In two years, he’d gone from living hand-to-mouth on the street and crashing at different people’s apartments to an art world sensation. He had no support system when things really got deep. No one to pull him back from the drugs. And by then, there was the pressure to continue to produce masterpieces. I’m not quoting it exactly, but he’s said to have remarked, “They say the drugs are killing me, and I should stop. But then the works suffers and they’ll talk about me.” Yeah, it was a vicious and fickle environment.
There was a scene in Schnabel’s film where, towards the end, Basquiat, very much down on his luck, fighting his drug addiction—and you can see it in the splotches on his face—visits Schnabel at the SoHo loft he lives in. Schnabel’s paintings are all over the place. Things look comfortable, and they were. Basquiat looks as if he hasn’t eaten in a while, so Schnabel fixes him a plate of pasta. Schnabel’s daughter, I think, comes in, he says something to her and pats her on the heads, and then she trots aways. The contrast between the two men’s situations was always painful. After all, Schnabel was, at one point, an art world darling, a superstar in his own right. But these two ended up in very different places. For all the excesses, the partying, the drugs, I always felt there was probably a community around Schnabel that would never have let him slip over the edge. And he knew it. There he was, sitting securely up there in that loft, with his family and his presumption and his privilege intact. I hated Julian Schnabel for a while after seeing that.
I think about Basquiat’s relationship with his father. Here’s the classic story of a young man who desperately wants his father’s approval. And I don’t know enough to say that his dad unduly withheld it. But his father was an accountant, a successful one at that and a Haitian immigrant. I can only guess that he had a serious work ethic and believed in propriety and comporting oneself appropriately. In the Davis film, one of Basquiat’s friends tells of a time, again towards the end, when he took all the friends he’d known before he became famous out to lunch. Turns out his dad was at the same restaurant entertaining some clients. Jean-Michel went over to say hi—and it’s not clear what the exchange was—but his friend says he came back with is tail between his legs, utterly deflated. Maybe his dad really dressed him down over of the way he looked because of the drugs.
I sat there in the theater wondering how I would’ve reacted if, instead of Basquiat and his dad, that was me and my son Tyler. Perhaps, after the art world turned on him and feeling beat up by the world, maybe he just needed his dad’s acceptance and maybe that would’ve made a difference, and he might not have taken the heroin that killed him. This is all speculation. I’m not blaming his dad for Basquiat’s death. But, I’m a parent, too, and I understand how children can bring out your darker emotions.
But I keep coming back to this whole thing about a support system and being moored. He went places that no one in his family had been and achieved a level of success that not even his friends like Fab 5 Freddy could really relate to. He was the one, and he was definitely out there alone.
You could say Basquiat’s is a cautionary tale, but it’s not. It’s just tragic. And it hurts. Yes, there’s a sense of wonder at his abilities and his vision—Davis shows a lot of his work throughout the film and gets a lot of heavyweights to talk about it, which is great. But, when you combine that sense of wonder with an understanding of the outsized talent that was lost so young, I can’t help but mourn that Radiant Child.
In New York City, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child runs through Tuesday, August 3 at the Film Forum. Check out the other cities it will play in here.