It is a common practice in the film world to explore the lives of painters and artists, particularly those who lived and died by their art. Jean-Michel Basquiat is surely not an exception but rather a most definitive representation of it. He gives life and form to his countless statements through graffitis, shows his messily ecstatic but ultimately epochal visions through his paintings and evokes a new voice of artistic non-conformity by way of his creations.
But then, to counter this searing passion prevalent among artists like Basquiat, the film, directed by Julian Schnabel both with an attention to content and a slight delve into the experimental, then puts all of these into a final salvo towards self-destruction. Jeffrey Wright, one of the more impressive character actors of our time, delivers an unrecognizable performance as the title role. For roles like these, stars always have this tendency to either unnecessarily steal scenes or bury the real people they're playing in the afterthought of their very own persona. This is not the case for Jeffrey Wright. As I may describe it, his performance 'took its own form, life and time'.
His on-screen rendition of Jean-Michel Basquiat developed not through an obvious 'pen and paper'-bound emotional and psychological metamorphosis but through a more simple approach: Wright, as an actor, preferred not to merely play or portray Basquiat, but to embody him. Although he does not look like the late artist himself, Jeffrey Wright achieved to embrace the role not for the sake of showcasing some superficial acting prowess but to internally channel Basquiat as a human being. This unconscious but fruitful connection between Jeffrey Wright and Jean-Michel Basquiat was particularly enhanced by the fact that Julian Schnabel is also an artist/painter.
Considering that the artistic connection is fairly established between Wright, the mythical Basquiat and Schnabel, the film, in effect, has been much more transcendental and relatively honest in its emotional backbone and at the same time, also purer in its artistic merit.
The film's cast is great, with supporting roles by Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, a bit of Christopher Walken as his usual patented self playing an interviewer (this therefore completes an unofficial "True Romance" cast reunion), Benicio Del Toro as Basquiat's friend and Willem Dafoe as an electrician. David Bowie is wonderful to behold as Andy Warhol, whose facial resemblance with the enigmatic pop artist himself immensely helped in his portrayal and also added some authentic weight into his performance.
Although there were scenes that were too dormant for their own good, the film is quietly successful in almost all levels, specifically on how it was able to lift itself into a higher form of human 'drama' without accidentally spelling it out with an additional 'melo'. "Basquiat", as a biopic, is quite unique in its position. The film does celebrate the short-lived life and genius of Jean-Michel Basquiat but does not overly glorify him. The film shows his bleak self-decline but does not fully capitalize in it to exaggeratedly highlight a drama that is more than the film can swallow.
"Basquiat" is urgent in its neutrality as an observer. An observer of a man whose voice was deemed as coming from the gutters but whose art was deemed as a gift. With this middle ground stance, the film, with a great black and white look upon the short and bittersweet life of a "young black painter in a white art world", is an uncommon triumph.