Opening to snippets of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artwork and music, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” begins with Langston Hughes’ poem, “Genius Child.” Focusing on the misery and social seclusion faced by intellectual youth, the poem states that killing the individual, in order to free his potential, is the best option. While a somewhat disturbing way to begin the documentary, the poem eerily encapsulates Basquiat’s life.
With interviews from friends, critics and former lovers, director Tamra Davis focuses the film on the intimate interview she had with her then friend Basquiat, two years before he passed away. Even if this potential bias affected the film, the final work paints Basquiat as the tragic hero, which most postmortem biographies do. Plus, this familiarity allowed Davis to extract powerful and moving quotes from her interviewees, helping the audience visualize certain moments in Basquiat’s life with a clarity most biographical documentaries lack.
Analyzing the events of his past, “The Radiant Child” attempts to ascertain why Basquiat’s art style was the way it was. Childish and playful yet subliminally cognitive, his pieces delighted both scholars and the everyday 80s, grunge teenager. His humble beginnings originated in intuitive poetry graffittied all over the city. Basquiat’s usage of typography in his later works permits him to express himself, not only through drawings but also through multiple series of words seemingly strung together at random.
But the more famous Basquiat became, the more paranoia took hold of him. Examining the relationships he had with his parents and friends, Davis portrays Andy Warhol and ex-girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk as two of the only people he undoubtedly trusted. But as he dated other people, he eventually only talked to Mallouk on seldom occasions. He went on to collaborate with Warhol, but their finished show, “Dangerous Minds,” failed to get the hype they desired. Basquiat felt abandoned and once again isolated in the art world once he was told Warhol was using the still up-and-coming artist to remain popular.
As the film treks on, viewers watch as Basquiat, once just a party-goer who occasionally smoked pot, becomes more and more dependent on achieving a better high. Conflicted by the fact that critics hated his sober work, Basquiat knowledgeably risked his life in order to preserve that of his art.
His final works emphasized this knowledge. He painted portraits of men “riding death” and writing the phrase “A Man Dies,” all over two different pieces. Basquiat’s last gallery contained an uncanny foreboding of his untimely death at the age of 27.
In some ways Jean-Michel Basquiat would probably hate this biographical documentary and in some ways he would probably love it. He would like the gritty film, the candid photos and the nostalgic, voiced-over interviews describing the New York City street scene in the late 1970s and early 80s; but he would hate people analyzing his work and teaching people about it, wanting instead for them to figure that out on their own. He enjoyed his privacy, and the film invades that in a way. Ultimately, he would more than likely want people to know of his life not through a movie, but through his own infamy.
Available on Netflix Instant Play, the documentary is inspiring and worth its hour-and-a-half length. Focusing on pop culture and the 80s lifestyle, it is not only interesting but also nostalgic of an era past.