'Radiant Child' A Rare Insight Into Basquiat's Mind

Director Tamra Davis chronicles the rise and fall of her friend Jean-Michel Basquiat, the young "rock star" artist who died of a heroin overdose. Host Audie Cornish speaks with Davis about the film she almost didn't make.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Film, photography, graffiti art - our next subject combined all these and more to become one of the biggest artists of his generation. Now, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a heroin overdose at age 28, is the subject of a new documentary. It offers rare insight into a mind inspired by everything from "Grey's Anatomy" to Miles Davis.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Radiant Child")

Mr. JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: And so you're asking somebody, you know, how does your horn - asking Miles, how does your horn sound? You know - I don't think he could really tell you, you know, why he played, you know, why he plays this at this point in the music or, you know, just - you're sort of on automatic, you know, most of the time.

CORNISH: "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child" is the work of director Tamra Davis. And she's with me from our studios in New York.

Tamra Davis, welcome to the program.

Ms. TAMRA DAVIS (Director, "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child"): Thank you.

CORNISH: One of the first things I learned about this film is that you almost didn't make it. And I wonder why, because there's a lot of amazing footage here that really hasn't been seen before.

Ms. DAVIS: When I filmed the footage, he died quite, you know, pretty soon afterwards. And, one, it was very difficult to, like, go back into this footage of a friend that had died and kind of look through and figure out what kind of a movie I would make. But also, towards the end of his life, he was very upset with many of his friends who had sold the paintings that he had given them or things like that.

And so, even dead, I didn't want him to think I was kind of profiting on this wonderful relationship that I had with him.

CORNISH: So Tamra, what were some of - I guess - the myths and mythology around Jean-Michel Basquiat that you wanted to tackle with this film?

Ms. DAVIS: Obviously, a lot of them. But some of the more important ones was that he kind of was a primitive and, you know, was this idiot savant that just kind of sprung up homeless on the streets of New York. And really, he was raised in a middle-class family in Brooklyn with a father that - Haitian father who was an accountant and his mother was Puerto Rican, so he was very - he had a huge cultural strength in his background.

And it was just a token ride to New York City, and he was here quite often. So he wasn't a primitive living in some jungle that just arrived in the city. And then also, the idea that when Annina Nosei had given him his start and she gave him her basement, the idea that she locked him in this basement and gave him drugs or whatever it was - that this myth that she kind of had him in this basement was just horrible because...

CORNISH: And this was a gallery studio owner at the time who gave him his first real space. I mean...

Ms. DAVIS: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...prior to this point, he was drawing on his refrigerator in his girlfriend's apartment.

Ms. DAVIS: Yeah. Yeah, and living like, girlfriend to girlfriend on the streets and not having a place to paint. And so I show pictures of that gallery, of the place that he - the basement, which is actually this huge space with skylights and, you know, it was a wonderful place.

CORNISH: Some of the most amazing parts of the film are what you're describing - just him painting. I know it sounds really silly, but you don't see that very often. And especially someone who created just these huge collages. They were -each painting was its own kind of universe of words and images. And to see him just kind of brushstroking away in the middle of the day, and shuffling to a jazz song, was really amazing. I mean, he seemed so comfortable in front of the camera.

Ms. DAVIS: I'm just so grateful that I had that footage. And it was so wonderful for me to look back at it and see the relationship between us, and see the flirting and see the, are you looking at me when he looks around a - you know, shoulder. And I definitely see it as the time of, like, I was a 20-year-old, young-girl film student, and he was this rising, 22-year-old art star.

Just the way he held the paintbrush or held the crayon was so interesting to me. And I thought that, yeah, that that was a rare glimpse.

CORNISH: How was this complicated by race? And I know there's a million ways to answer that question, but in the movie you do have footage of him touching on it just a little bit. And I want you to give us a sense of, how did he view the racial sensibilities of the art world at the time and what that meant for him.

Ms. DAVIS: I mean, I definitely spend time in the film addressing that issue because I knew that was something that was very important to him. You know, I experienced it firsthand, hanging out with him - that we would go into a store, and people would look at us like we were going to steal something, and he would just like, whip out wads of cash like, you know, you have no idea who I am.

And I think that that was something - he really battled with it, whether he became like, a superstar in the art world and could get into any club, when he walked down a street in New York City or Los Angeles, he was still a black kid and could get pulled over at any moment.

So not only you could see that in his daily life, it really comes out in the paintings. He addresses these issues, and uses words and images that constantly bring up other black icons or other images and words that have to - deal with black history.

CORNISH: Yeah, and the pictures you show in the movie, they're images of jazz musicians Miles Davis, Coltrane, Charlie Parker. He likened himself to these figures, in a way.

Ms. DAVIS: He would put crowns on these people, and so I think that that was part of him praising and kind of like, acknowledging these kings in our culture. Whether or not he felt he himself was one of these kings, I feel that he wanted to make sure that he acknowledged all the people that had influenced him. And you really see it in his art. It's all over the place.

CORNISH: At the same time, some of them are very tragic figures. I mean, emulating someone like Charlie Parker, the logical conclusion of that is not necessarily great.

Ms. DAVIS: Yeah. It's like, one of those mysteries of like - you know, when you start to emulate these geniuses that also have tragic endings, you're very well aware of what kind of path you're taking.

CORNISH: But when he was saying it at the time, you're just sitting on the couch, and you're both people in your 20s, thinking you're going to live forever. Did you think that or - I mean, did you feel like, oh, I'm next to the next dot, dot, dot?

Ms. DAVIS: Towards the - you know, the last time I saw him, I definitely felt that I'm next to the next dot, dot, dot because we spent a whole weekend talking about death and Marilyn Monroe and, you know, James Dean and other, like, huge heroes that had burnt their candles at both ends and had a flash and died.

I felt that he was chasing that same demon at the time. And I think that towards the end, he was just convinced that he had done what he had to do, and it was over. And that was just really difficult for me to understand because he was so young at the time. And I felt that if he could get it together, he would become like, a filmmaker or a writer, or something like that. But he was convinced - he had stopped painting at the time - and he was convinced that would never come back again.

CORNISH: Tamra, you had these films for a very long time before you decided to make this film. Why did it take you so long to bring them out into the light of day?

Ms. DAVIS: I think it was kind of a combination of dealing with the sadness of trying to make a film right after somebody died and what's the film going to be about. Is it just going to be a sad movie about somebody who died young? And also, I really felt that his voice needed to be heard at this point, because his star, instead of crashing, it actually just kept rising.

And even now, there's like, museum shows all over the world with his art and those paintings, they just keep getting more and more valuable. And so I just felt that the footage that I had was actually an important historical archive.

CORNISH: Tamra Davis is the director of a new documentary, "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child." She joined us from our studios in New York.

Tamra Davis, thank you for joining us.

Ms. DAVIS: Thank you very much.

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