The film explores the rise and fall of the gifted artist who created more than 1000 paintings and 1000 drawings before he died of a drug overdose at the age of 27. This documentary uses music, interviews with friends, former girlfriends, artists, musicians, art critics, collectors and gallery owners, archival footage, and images of the artist’s work to craft an intriguing and nuanced portrait.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is an insightful, humorous, and poignant tribute to a gifted artist who created a remarkable body of work before he died of a drug overdose in 1988 at the age of 27. Through numerous interviews, as well as director Tamra Davis’s own footage of the artist, the documentary reveals a complex, enormously talented man who was misunderstood by many and rejected by the art cognoscenti during his short life.
It’s the first film about Basquiat to provide a nuanced picture of the charismatic artist and to explore the challenges he faced as a black man in a white art world. It is a response to Basquiat, Julian Schnabel’s disappointing 1996 fiction feature film, which did not have the Basquiat’s Estate’s permission to use his paintings and thus used fake ones, and to Phoebe Hoban’s 1999 book, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, which is more of a hit piece loaded with gossip than a biography.
Davis was a film student in Los Angeles when she became friends with Basquiat during the last years of his life. During that time, she shot a fascinating interview with the artist as well as riveting scenes of him working in his California studio. Clips from her footage appear throughout the documentary alongside archival film and video, interviews with art dealers, collectors and critics as well as friends, former girlfriends, artists and musicians, and of course, many images of Basquiat’s arresting artwork.
The documentary opens with the words of Langston Hughes’s poem “Genius Child”—white text appears on a stark black background. The poem’s refrain is a theme of the film: “Nobody loves a genius child.” Davis deliberately underlines the words “genius child,” telling viewers to pay attention to those words. The film then offers a tantalizing glimpse of the interview with text explaining that it was filmed two years before his death and that the footage “has not been seen for over 20 years.”
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