a radiant genius child

Nobody loves a genius child
Kill him — and let his soul run wild!
–Langston Hughes

Tamra Davis’s documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child opens with the text of Langston Hughes’s “Genius Child.” Initially I bristled at another reference to Basquiat’s childlike quality as I had seen Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic, and while I thought Jeffrey Wright was a dynamo (as usual), I found that Schnabel’s portrayal of the artist as a troubled and temperamental “child” undermined Basquiat’s brilliance, skill, and wit.

Davis’s documentary does just the opposite. She unveils an interview she conducted with her friend Jean over twenty years ago and supports it with the recollections of others who were close to the artist like his longtime girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk and his running buddy, graffiti artist and hip hop pioneer, Fab 5 Freddy. Davis intersperses these personal reflections with footage from the 1970s and 80s that chronicles downtown artists, the disco scene, the “high” art world with its “white walls, white people, and white wine,” and an emerging hip hop culture. Basquiat negotiates and creates art that reflects all of these different worlds as he graduates from tagging his signature SAMO on city streets to creating enigmatic artwork that propelled him to international fame.

But with “mo money” came “mo problems” as sycophants and star fuckers surrounded Basquiat and, in spite of both critical and commercial successes, he never received due respect from the elitist and racist art world. The death of one of his best friends Andy Warhol worsened Basquiat’s heroin addiction. And like far too many radiant, genius children, he died too young at 27.

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About jennifer williams

Jennifer D. Williams is a writer and professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies. She has published in academic journals and online at Ms.blog, PopMatters, among other sites. Jennifer is currently working on a book that looks at black women's urban literature between the Depression and the civil rights era.

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