I caught the last 30 minutes or so of a documentary about Jean-Michel Basquiat by director Tamra Davis on PBS recently. The documentary saddened me. A brilliant artist had the life sucked out of him by the people closest to him.
Years ago, I saw a movie about Basquait starring Jeffrey Wright. The movie offered a compelling look at Basquiat’s rise to prominence in the art world. Jeffery Wright’s portrayal of Basquiat was incredible. As I watched Davis’s documentary, I realized that Wright had captured the essence of Basquiat in his portrayal. Jean-Michel Basquait was a phenom.
That 1996 biopic piqued my interest in the artist, the man. It was very easy to relate to his life on many levels; the acrimony of a young black man trying to exist in a world resistant to his presence, the racism he experienced in his day-to-day interactions in a world that limits it access to men like us and the treachery of the people closest to him.
While watching the documentary, I was reminded of my own personal experiences as a young man. When I went out in the world I was very optimistic about what I expected from life and other people who I encountered in so-called “civilized” settings. I soon discovered that people tend to be rather predatory when it comes to the uninitiated. People will take advantage of your naiveté and do so in ways that would not cause someone who lacks certain sophistications to ever suspect they are being “played”. I also experienced the snide recriminations of those that were surprised that I might be at their “level” when it came to functioning in the white-collar world. It was disheartening at times but unlike Basquait I had developed good coping skills that shielded me from taking the slurs too personal. Unlike Basquiat I had a strong bond with my father. That bond allowed me to shake off all the dumb stuff that people threw at me.
Basquait was the consummate sensitive artist. His brilliance as an artist it seems was overshadowed by his passions, his desire to be understood and his need to be appreciated. It was ultimately his undoing. So many great personalities died at age 27: Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, and Jim Morrison all perished before their 28th birthdays. They all seemed to be victims of the downside of fame that the most talented sometimes succumb to.
During my early life, I watched as some of the brightest and the best in the hood failed to reach their potential or age 30. People seem to feed off of the brilliance of others like dope fiends. There are thousands of Basquiats out there. I hope that the sacrifice he made will not be in vain and the next genius of his calibre will enjoy all of the benefits that accompany great success.