My introduction to artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was, surprise surprise, a cinematic one. In my days managing a video store, I made it a point to populate the store with as many independent films as mainstream ones, in an attempt to keep the film choices as broad as possible. One of the films I ordered for the store, and enjoyed immensely, was Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat.” It was this fiction narrative history of the graffiti-artist-turned-art-world-superstar that helped my ears to perk up when I heard of Tamra Davis’s true documentary about the artist, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.”
Going into the first watch of “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child,” I’ll admit to wondering just how on-point Schnabel’s film had been. Was Basquiat really as he was portrayed by Jeffrey Wright? Who was this artist who, like so many other brilliant artists across so many other mediums, died at such an early age (Basquiat died of a drug overdose at age 27)? Honestly, watching this doc, I actually cared less about who Basquiat was, mainly because I was finally given a proper introduction to all his varied artworks, and their stunning strength captivated my attention far more than any anecdote about the artist’s life ever could. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Of course, watching the documentary, I was able to see actual footage of Basquiat and get an idea of his personality, and his overwhelming charm. I can understand how he was able to keep so many people in his thrall, just by being himself. Again, however, the real find in this film, for me, was all the artwork he did, lovingly portrayed and given proper attention. Simply, watching “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” made me appreciate the art more than the artist. I’m not sure if that was the goal of the film, probably not, but I like that I was given enough imagery and content either way to allow me to focus on what I wished to, and value how I’d like.
If you knew Jean-Michel Basquiat, I think this film is a respectful ode to the artist. If you’ve heard of him, I think this is a comprehensive study of his artistic life. If you’ve never heard of him, this is the perfect gateway film into not just his world as an artist, but the art world that surrounded him in the 1980s. I know many people will find many different reasons to love this film, so I hope my impersonal appreciation doesn’t influence their opinion or give the idea that the film might be cold or distant; it’s just the opposite.