Based on a True Story

by Andrew Baker

I recently found the documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child on Netflix. It isn't great, but a good bit of it is pretty interesting. I particularly like the footage that was taken from an interview Tamra Davis, the film's director and a former friend of the artist, had shot with JMB a couple of years before his death. But Davis, like most of the talking heads and old acquaintances she interviewed for the piece, seems too close to its subject to create an honest portrait. Many of them, either for personal or professional reasons, seem too invested in the legend, too anxious to protect the idea of this angelic genius that, at times it feels as though they're not talking about a real person at all. Like he was less of a man and more of a china doll. But the interview with JMB, which Davis uses as the backdrop of the piece, is one of the more intimate portraits of the artist that I've ever seen. He's unguarded, and reveals himself to be a funny and thoughtful, but ultimately insecure...kid. He was 25 when it was shot (he died at 27), but he'd already been rich and famous for four or five years; his career was, for the most part, behind him. The interview really makes for a great foundation on which, I think, a much better film could have been made, but the final product leaves me feeling as though the whole thing is just another in a long line of exploitations of him. Maybe it would have made a difference for me had the film not been so overt in trying to hammer it home for the viewer that he was such an important historical figure. Even in death, it's like they can't just let this guy be the stupid (and yeah, pretty smart) kid that he was.

Anyway, I did like the bits with Julian Schnabel who shows up now and again. That arrogant prick has a habit of making me like him when he's doing just about anything but painting, and it was no different here. Even if they didn't bring it up in the documentary (and they do) it would be nearly impossible to watch the The Radiant Child without thinking of Schnabel's 1996 biopic, which did the double-duty of not only revealing Julian Schnabel as pretty great filmmaker but also introducing the world to Jeffery Wright, who's just pretty great. The pretension of that film is palpable, but I still like it as much as any artist biopic I've ever seen. But I guess that's not saying a lot. Still, it's worth an embed.

In The Radiant Child, Schnabel, who knew JMB but was several years older and more established as an artist, explains the motivation behind his film as an attempt to tell the kid who always seemed so interested in his (Schnabel's) opinion that he truly respected him. I guess that's acceptable. It's kind of sweet in a condescending sort of way. (Oh, Julian! You loveable asshole!) Anyway, at least it's not all about hero worship. It helps that the film is pretty good. I wonder if Milos Forman had a good excuse for Goya's Ghosts. Not good enough, I'm sure.

I understand the impulse behind making these movies, but it so rarely works out for the best, even if it seems, at first, as though it should. Paintings may be visually interesting, but the act of making them, generally, is not, so the dilemma becomes how to force drama into a kind of boring existence. Generally, that's exactly how it feels: forced.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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