Tamra Davis’ thoughtful documentary about Jean-Michel Basquiat premieres as part of Independent Lens on Tuesday, 12 April. At first, the film retells some familiar stories: Basquiat was a genius, ahead of his time and also “too fragile for this world,” as Madonna once described him. He loved women or misread them. He challenged or was foiled by the art world’s corrosive elitism, he was intuitive and authentic, or he fell victim to the monster called celebrity. He died too young, at 27, of a heroin overdose, alone, undone by his father’s disapproval or Andy Warhol’s death, or maybe his endless frustrations with racism. But it also offers less familiar insights. Built on a 1986 interview Davis conducted with her friend Basquiat, it shows him as funny, shy, and frank. Other interviewees—including Fab 5 Freddy and Julian Schnabel—knew or didn’t know him, appreciated his work or know something about his life choices. Some speakers point out what’s both most obvious and least discussed concerning Basquiat’s perennial alienation. Nelson George says, “The guy obviously spent a lot of time thinking and angry about what his place in the world was and the place of black people and black men in the world. It’s all in all his work, over and over again.”
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