Wild style: Tamra Davis talks Basquiat

A new doc sheds light on the life and times of the '80s street-art icon.

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The year is 1979, and the party is called “Canal Zone.” As New York underground scenesters take in the art lining a makeshift gallery’s walls, the camera focuses on the shindig’s host—downtown mover and shaker Michael Holman—and the young man he’s spotted in the crowd. “SAMO is here!” he exclaims, referring to the graffiti artist whose urban-paranoid updates of “Kilroy Was Here” tags had been mystifying city dwellers. (SAMO was short for “Same Ol’ Shit.”) The slim African-American kid sports a single perpendicular peninsula of hair down the middle of his shaved head, as well as a semicultivated air of introversion. But even with the punk ’do and the pimples, you immediately recognize the guy: It’s Jean-Michel Basquiat, 18 years old and perched on the verge of greatness.

By the time that Tamra Davis met Basquiat years later, the artist had adopted his trademark look (long dreadlocks, baggy sweaters, Nehru jackets) and become one of the most important painters of the 20th century. “I remember seeing him for the first time at a gallery and thinking, Who is that guy?” Davis says, calling from Los Angeles. “Everything from his hair to his outfits...he was like a rock star!” In 1985, Davis and a cohort filmed an interview with Basquiat in his L.A. studio. He listens intently to the questions, holding court with a smile, but you can see how supernova success has given him a weary, wary edge. Two years later, the art-world icon would be dead from a drug overdose.

Those images—the innocent but street-savvy teen and the creative dynamo frayed by fame—are the visual bookends of Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, Davis’s intimate portrait of her late friend. The extensive chat that the 48-year-old filmmaker had shot, however, remained unseen for decades. “Jean-Michel was very sad about how, in his mind, people had sold him out,” she says. “He’d give someone a painting as a gift, and then they’d sell it—which tore him up. I know this sounds weird, but even though he was dead, I didn’t want him to ever think that I’d exploited our relationship. So I kept it to myself.” Davis went on to direct music videos, TV and several classics of the stoner-comedy canon (Billy Madison, Half Baked); years later, an assistant editor finally convinced her to revisit the project. Her 20-minute short, “A Conversation with Basquiat,” got tongues wagging when it premiered at Sundance in 2006, and once she’d shown it to the curators of Basquiat’s 2005 retro at the MOCA, Davis understood how rare that afternoon shoot was. “Everyone at the museum kept saying, 'This is the only complete, comprehensive interview we’ve seen with him.... Do you realize how valuable this is?!?’?” she says, laughing. “I’d figured, it was the ’80s; didn’t every artist have hours of video documenting what they did?”

The director realized that a feature would allow her to provide not only a glimpse of the Basquiat she knew, but crucially, the historical context in which he’d worked. “You have to remember what was going on around us,” says fellow artist Fred Brathwaite—better known by his nom de hip-hop, Fab Five Freddy. One of Radiant’s talking heads, Fab had met Jean-Michel at his “Canal Zone” coming-out, and the two quickly bonded over shared interests and influences. “There were the punk and No Wave scenes, which Jean was a part of; there was hip-hop and graffiti culture; there were guys like Warhol that we both admired. We felt like generals in the field, wanting to attack the art world and scream 'Let us in!’ You can’t really know who Jean was without knowing how those things shaped him, and that’s exactly what the film does. It had to have been made by an insider, y’know?”

Davis was indeed an insider—she even pops up as one of the movie’s interviewees. “I wouldn’t have done it except I wanted to represent his time in Los Angeles, and I was there. If I didn’t know me, I’d have wanted to interview me!” She cops to the fact that her appearance in the film does lend it a less objective, more personal aspect, though she’s quick to point out that she’s not trying to pull a Michael Moore. “This movie is about that kid at 'Canal Zone’ and the man I filmed all those years ago. It’s Jean-Michel’s story...that’s what I wanted the world to know.”

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