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Basquiat (1996); And The Whitewashing of Black Culture

February 11, 2015

basquiatI regretfully admit that for most of my life I never knew of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Rappers have touted his name for some time and my high school obsession with Andy Warhol did little to reveal the period in the 1980s where the two were best friends. Images from Basquiat’s artwork have been recognizable, but their origin remained shrouded in mystery. My formal introduction to the young, prodigal artist was through Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic, Basquiat. Schnabel’s pop influenced, colorful montage of sorts gave me insight into Basquiat’s persona and artistry. It also caused me to despise everything about him. Had I not taken the initative to further research the enigma of Basquiat and his works I would have done myself a huge disservice by missing out on the greatness of a fabulous artist. During his reign in the mainstream art world, the twenty-something Basquiat was often criticized and poked at by the media who argued that he was being exploited by those in his inner circle and of the art world. Obviously with race at the forefront of these discussions art critics and commentators spoke of the African American artist as if he was too ignorant to understand that he was being used. This time period also thrusted Basquiat’s friendship with Warhol into the spotlight condemning Warhol for seeking relevancy through Basquiat’s blossoming career. Ironically these writers were the ones who misconstrued facts and aspects of Basquiat’s life in order to generate subversive content for the publications they wrote for: an act that in it’s very nature is exploitative. basquait The tragedy of Schnabel’s supposed biography is that it further contributes to this bilateral exploitation of the artist as Schnabel smears Basquiat’s personal story and the importance of his artistry for Schnabel’s own artistic intentions. Schnabel’s hackneyed script and subpar direction simply bastardizes Basquiat’s legacy. Basquiat’s central figure (Jeffery Wright), thus the man himself, ceases to be a human with his own goals and outlook on life to instead become an objectified canvas for Schnabel to splatter his own lukewarm art upon. Though it’s not fully Schnabel’s fault. Basquiat feels like a studio baby whose diaper sags under its own weighted mess at the behest of its authorities. All the right (and likewise wrong) songs are present at the perfect time, a ridiculous amount of star power is implemented to carry the weight of the film, and there’s the right amount of pretentiousness to mirror the topic of the story, but no true depth or personal investment is apparent. Schnabel attempts to titillate viewers through his visuals using music video styled tropes of smash cutting and superimposing VHS footage into scenes. A frequently used scene involves Basquiat looking to the sky seeing a surfer cruising a wave in the blue of the firmament; the tidal wave reflecting his unique way of seeing the world around him. basquiat-1996-02-g While Schnabel’s off kilter edits and artsy pop sequences are commendable, they lack stable importance when paired with his horrific screenplay that ignores the humanity of Basquiat. Instead, the film focuses on small checkpoints in the artist’s life making him out to be a selfish, spoiled painter with no greater intention than fame. Throughout his life Basquiat was known for his moments of creating art on any and everything. Where Schnabel could have used this aspect to portray an artist so consumed in art and compelled to create that he does it anywhere, Schnabel chooses instead to dramatize the eccentricity of Basquiat. We watch scenes of Basquiat behaving like a slightly unsteady brat who thinks his art is worthy of being scribbled on a diner’s table or in a sketch book with chili as the tool. The biggest shame of all, aside from the amateur dribble that’s meant to be dialogue and David Bowie’s awful Warhol wig, is that Schanbal chooses to ignore Basquiat’s social consciousness and racial interrogation in his works. Though race and reflections of black figures are a major part of Basquiat’s art, race is a very small aspect of the film brought in only halfway through when Basquiat’s fame has skyrocketed and an interviewer misquotes a Time article claiming it called Basquiat ‘the Uncle Tom of the art world.’ Throughout the interview, the interviewer presses Basquiat about his upbringing challenging his vagabond lifestyle over his middle-class roots. After this, Basquiat’s character changes becoming very self-aware of his race in the white dominated art world and begins to feel inferior in certain situations. He buckles under the pressure to prove himself as valuable to others because of his race. basquiat_20501_4ea5d7c84f13c137cc0009ab_1320212868 This gross misconception of how Basquiat saw himself downplays his art and how he viewed society around him. Though entrenched in the white art world, Basquiat was very aware of his race as well as the injustices blacks encountered. This is reflected not only in his own words, but also in his art that focused on police brutality, racial divide, class struggle, and black imagery. Basquiat’s place within the burgeoning hip hop world is another part of his life and art that is largely ignored in the film. Schnabel’s script touches on Basquiat as a musician, but goes nowhere near his time working with hip hop artists and the enormous respect he received from pioneers in the hip hop scene like Grandmaster Flash and Fab 5 Freddy. Basquiat is a deplorable film that speaks volumes to the whitewashing of black history and its culture. Everything about Basquiat’s life is painted in white so that audiences of the time, and today, can swallow with ease and feel sad that such a promising artist had to die so young because of his own personal struggles. Nowhere does this film point a finger at the very society that fueled his destructive behaviors by putting pressure on his art because of his race and how exploitation effects a human being. Instead, Schnabel continues the trend using only what he needs of Basquiat’s life to tell a sham of a story that’s meant to showcase his own art and not that of the film’s subject. For this reason I absolutely despised watching Basquiat and it saddens me that his legacy lives through such a shell of a film.


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