“No one thought I’d make it in the first place, you know. And then, when it happened, it was, ‘yeah, but he’ll never keep it up.’ And now they say I’m killing myself—stuff like this. Then when I clean up, they say, ‘well, his art’s dead.’ “
This statement summarizes not only the life and work and Jean-Michel Basquiat but also the dog-eat-dog mentality of the New York art scene in the 1980s. Basquiat, a graffiti painter captured the spotlight for a few short years with his expressionistic and emotional canvases; his fresh perspective and composition spoke of his struggles with race and identity and the need to create. He died at twenty-seven of a heroin overdose, but his work still moves viewers today. His life and art was the subject of the 1996 film Basquiat directed by Julian Schnabel which won the Independent Spirit Award.
Basquiat takes time to get into. The film seems to open without much focus and perhaps this speaks to Basquiat’s own lack of knowledge about what his life was to be about. He is portrayed by Jeffrey Wright who does a phenomenal job of getting into character. Wright is transformed throughout the film from a giggling young man with an abstract dream of becoming famous to a character with depth that comes from beauty, creation, tragedy and an inner battle that is being lost. Within a half-hour, viewers are drawn into Basquiat’s world and feel very much a part of the story. The questions of racial and class identity, the duplicity and fickleness of the art world and the overwhelming presence of drugs seem very real and relevant facts to those watching the movie.
As with any portrayal of a man or woman who had significant impact on their world, there is bound to be a touch of exaggeration in the storytelling. Schnabel does a good job of weaving the various aspects of Basquiat’s life into a comprehensive tale and it is hard to find moments that ring false. The opening scene of Basquiat and his mother visiting Picasso’s Guernica and his mother seeing a shining crown on his head felt quite surreal, but the emotions of the rest of the movie felt sincere.
Once Basquiat is established in the basement studio, there is a beautiful montage of him painting several canvases. Set to the jazz music he loved and the music of the streets, viewers watch as he moves from one canvas to the next as an idea strikes him. He walks on top of canvas that lies on the floor painting patches of color here and there, spray painting parts, writing in the graffiti style on others. Through the montage his studio fills with finished canvases and viewers are able to get a sense of how the works were created, and once again feels legitimate.
Art, the art world and Basquiat’s personal life share the spotlight in this movie. His art is the reason for the movie and is featured throughout, however it would have been nice to see a few pieces more in depth, perhaps with an explanation of what is behind them. The art world and the mutual exploitation of the artists and the dealers and the public is a prominent story line and one that was a source of frustration for Basquiat. His struggle with drugs, the self-doubt and the issues of being a black artist in a white man’s world are also portrayed with seriousness.
There are multiple layers to the film that can be appreciated with additional viewings. There is reference to the John Henry myth and to a story about a prince locked in a tower with a golden crown that makes beautiful music that are linked to Basquiat’s life and that require time to digest. As a biopic, this movie succeeds in introducing a new generation to the genius of Jean-Michel Basquiat and his incredible canvases.