Jean-Michel Basquiat would have turned 50 years old today. One of the most influential artists of his generation, Basquiat began his career as a graffiti artist on the streets of Brooklyn in the ’70s. By the time of his death in 1988 at the age of 27, he had created hundreds of paintings that are now showcased in various museums and art galleries around the world.
Filmmaker Tamra Davis painted her own portrait of the artist in her latest documentary, “Basquiat: A Radiant Child.” I recently talked to Davis about her film and her special friendship with Basquiat.
Dreux Dougall: Why did you decide to make this documentary now?
Tamra Davis: It was a culmination of things. I had been working on a short film and I put it out when he had a retrospective, and then I showed it at Sundance and they said “Can you make this into a feature?” But it was hard to do right after he died because I was still so sad about what had happened. It just didn’t seem like a good time.
Dougall: For people like me who are just discovering Basquiat, can you tell us why he was such a significant figure in the contemporary art world?
Davis: I think it’s because his paintings are so beautiful! He was a fantastic painter but he also was an incredible character and a personality. So I think he was this amazing talent but also he was such a memorable character.
Dougall: What role do you think race played in Basquiat’s work and how it was received?
Davis: I think it played a huge part in his work, which I was realizing wasn’t really part of the discussion. I felt like if you knew Jean-Michel, [you would know that it] played a very significant part not only in his work but how it defined who he was as a person. And it wasn’t so much that he was like, “I’m a black man.” He was very understanding and curious about the role of culture in our world, because it wasn’t also that he was black — he was also Haitian, Puerto Rican. So to be treated just as a black person it was just startling to him. So I think he wanted raise the spotlight and bring that into the discussion.
Dougall: What’s your fondest memory of Basquiat?
Davis: I would say dancing on the dance floor with him. Pretty much anybody would remember how much fun he was to go dancing with.
Dougall: Tell me about the day when you decided to make this documentary. How did you approach Basquiat’s father?
Davis: It took a long process to approach the father because I knew that in order to make the movie I needed permission of the father. His father had never granted permission to anybody to do anything under the Basquiat estate. And I knew him a little bit, but I was a little scared to approach him because I knew if he said “no” that would have been it.
The day I finally got to sit down with him in his offices and have the first formal meeting, he was like, “Who are you? I’ve never heard of you. For 20 years you’ve had this footage of my son, and I’ve never heard of you?” And I said, “Oh my gosh I’m so sorry that we haven’t done anything, and it was never the right time. But now I really feel like it’s important to let Jean-Michel speak for his own work. I have this great footage of him, where he really says something.”
His father looked at me and said, “I trust you. You’re the only person who has had something of this of my son for this long time and you’ve never profited from it? I’ve never heard of you?”
And I said, “Oh my gosh! Thank you.” And it was true and I’m glad I made the movie because it was really one of the movies I would love to sit next to Jean-Michel and show him. So I think in that sense it turned out to be the film that I told his father I was going to make.
Dougall: What was Basquiat’s father’s reaction to your documentary?
Davis: I don’t know if he’s seen it. I’ve heard that it’s too hard for him to see because it’s his son.
Dougall: What was Basquiat’s frame of mind the last time you saw him?
Davis: That was very sad because he looked terrible and he was really low. I think he was basically being haunted by death, that’s the best way to describe it. He just somehow was on a, ‘I’m going to survive, but in the mean time, I’ve got this thing chasing me.” So it was this real flip flop of ‘I’m going to re-invent myself, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that” and then – “what’s going to happen, I feel like it’s all over. I’m going to die.” So it was really sad and emotional. I had a really hard time with all that.
Dougall: How will history judge Basquiat?
Davis: I hope they judge him as a great artist. That’s the basic thing I wanted people to become aware of. He was this beautiful, amazing, tragic story that was so classic in our time. It’s almost Shakespearean in the sense that it’s happened so many times before. But I just hope that what really stands out the most is his art because when you stand in front of Basquiats and you really get to really look at them, the work is just so spectacular and that’s the thing I hope history really judges him by the amazing body of work that he was able to produce.