Tamra Davis’s documentary, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, opens with the text of Langston Hughes’ poem “Genius Child,” announcing that the film will be a deeply sympathetic portrait of the artist. And there is good reason that it is. In 1986, Davis–director of Billy Madison, Half-Baked, and scores of music videos and popular TV episodes–was an unknown filmmaker and a friend of graffiti artist cum NYC art-world phenom Basquiat. She sat down with him and filmed an interview, and only two years later, he was dead from a heroin overdose at 27. Over twenty years later, Davis unearthed her footage and turned it into the feature-length Radiant Child.
The title of the film comes from a 1981 Artforum article by poet and critic René Ricard, who helped take Basquiat’s work from the streets to the galleries. A native son of hybrid Brooklyn cultures, Basquiat exuded boyish charm and courage, but he was no naïf, despite often being cast in the role of noble savage by patronizing critics. Having honed his craft and persona as graffiti writer SAMO, he was already fairly well-connected and self-assured by the time he became, in biographer Richard Marshall’s words, “famous for being famous.” Ricard credits Basquiat and contemporary Keith Haring with raising graffiti “above the vernacular” and compares them both to Karl Marx: “Das Kapital was written by one man. This is no graffito, this is no train, this is a Jean-Michel Basquiat. This is a Keith Haring.”
Whatever one makes of the lofty comparison, it gets at the heart of Basquiat’s savvy as an intensely political artist, who, in spite of his personal demons, used all of himself—his Haitian and Puerto Rican background, his childhood traumas, and his self-transforming experiences on the New York streets as a teenage bohemian—to carve out a place in the art world uniquely his own, and yet also uniquely expressive of thousands of anonymous New Yorkers’ wild desires for notoriety. As Haring said of Basquiat, “he disrupted the politics of the art world and insisted that if he had to play their games, he would make the rules. His images entered the dreams and museums of the exploiters, and the world would never be the same.”
All this high praise might prepare an initiate to Basquiat’s celebrity for an imposing individual, but as Davis’s film shows, he was more hipster mad scientist, and maybe something of a clever schemer. He pioneered noise rock with his band Gray, his first public work under his own name, during a time when he was just “surviving.” As he puts it in the film, he was “living place to place… looking for money on the floor of the Mudd club,” planning on “being a bum” for the rest of his life. Jeffrey Deitch, however, claims that at this time in Basquiat’s life, at age 18, “he was already at the epicenter of the most advanced music, art, in the world.” What’s wonderful about Tamra Davis’s film is that it not only documents its subject, but also the vibrant downtown scene that nurtured and embraced him. With original music from her husband Beastie Boy Mike D and bandmate Adam Horowitz, and interviews with Thurston Moore, Julian Schnabel, Fab 5 Freddy, and dozens more, The Radiant Child is mostly just fun to watch, even if it’s hagiography, and an antidote to Schnabel’s somewhat shallow biopic, Basquiat.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.