A few years ago Spike Lee was roundly denounced for what was seen as an unfortunate case of racist thinking. Lee had bluntly stated that to have a white director make a bio-pic of Malcom X's life would mean not getting the story right. His main argument was that the story of Malcom X as icon, leader and thinker was too important to African-Americans to have anyone other than an African-American direct a film about him. In Julian Schnabel's new movie about Jean-Michel Basquiat, every conceivable distortion of facts, from Schnabel's repainting of Basquiat's work to his portrayal of himself via the character Albert Milo (Gary Oldman) as central to the story, lends credence to Lee's argument. We may, of course, choose to sidestep the obvious racial implications which the film's subject brings up.
We may also choose, like the rest of the art world and all of the reviewers, to remain aloof from what is ostensibly Schnabel's not very subtle whitewash of Basquiat. We can all argue that it is only a movie, and besides Basquiat was a junkie, as if Basquiat's sordid demise compensates for the director's every misanthropic gesture towards him. But we should not. This is after all a film that is based on a life that was lived in the full public glare. Many witnesses and records exist that could at least refute some of Schnabel's misrepresentations in the course of the movie. Basquiat obviously can't speak for himself.
There is every reason to look at the response to this film from inside the art world as a metaphor for that industry's neglect of significant contributions by African-American artists. It also lends a key insight into to how far the art world would go to protect one of their own. If there have been any criticisms of this film, they have been of the little-boy-with-his-hand-in-the-cookie-jar variety. But this story has much less to do with film-making than it has to do with art history and what the stakes are for those like Basquiat: a 'street urchin', who is felt to have crashed the party.
It is ironic then, that Schnabel's original title for this film was Build a Fort, and Set it on Fire. Basquiat was simply too trusting and too vulnerable to spend a life building forts. It would appear that it is Schnabel who has done the building, and then taken pleasure in burning it down. At every turn it is Schnabel's benevolent mug, his quietly confident posture, his sedate and settled family life (wife, kids and parents) and lovely house filled with his huge operatic paintings, that are matched against Basquiat's insecure, nervous, itinerant and autistic presence. It is also a fact that the only original artwork in the film is Schnabel's, including the sloppily repainted 'Basquiats'.
I can't think of any motivation for making this film other than artist envy: Schnabel's desire to vanquish Basquiat's ghost. There is a comparison here with Salieri's pathological envy towards Mozart's insouciant, childlike genius. Like the obsessive Salieri, Schnabel builds his characterisations of Basquiat through a cleverly conceived series of rumours, innuendoes, half-truths and sheer fabrication. But of these, it is Schnabel as the fictitious Albert Milo who is the greatest fraud: a creation so lacking in humility he becomes a sick joke. Why, if this is a true story, would Schnabel fictionalise his presence by inventing a pseudonym, by framing himself in disguise, while leaving the marks of a Dorian Gray all over the scene? After all, Warhol (David Bowie) was Warhol, Rene Ricard (Michael Wincott) was Rene Ricard, Bruno Bischofberger was, well, Bruno... It seems that for every projection upon the aberrant form of Basquiat, Schnabel suffered equally. We could neither accept his centrality to events nor his genius as the auteur he dreams of being. He is just simply too tainted, too compromised. Maybe Schnabel just couldn't care less what we think of him so long as we are able to watch him give a tragic hero the finger.
In every shot Schnabel worked hard to dismantle the Basquiat aura, rubbing it out with each frame of the picture as if to punish his 'friend' for having died young and claimed the trophy of immortality first. I waited excruciatingly for Basquiat to utter one full, intelligible sentence, but was rewarded with only grunts. Basquiat, if we are to believe the film, is either too much of a savant on the prowl for white pussy, or simply stoned out of his eyeballs. Each step is so unnecessarily covered in a confetti of whiteness that key figures in the Basquiat constellation, such as Fab Five Freddy, Futura 2000 and Ramellzee were simply erased. Hence, Basquiat was drawn, in classic Lacanian terms, as an empty signifier, a ventriloquist's dummy encased in the amniotic sac of whiteness. Schnabel, as the ring master of this fantasy of displacement, performs the perfect pantomime in which Basquiat is not only deontologised, but equally desubjectivised.
But why should we not expect that? This is after all Schnabel's version of art history. Like everything else about this film, the scene of the boy-king Basquiat worshipping with his soon-to-be institutionalised mother before the presence of the modernist grail of Picasso's Guernica provided a cattle call of all the white geniuses Basquiat adored, but not the black ones he celebrated in his work.
As the movie draws to a close, we see Basquiat less as a sympathetic figure than as a pathetic one. With his impish grin, he looked sad and lonely riding through the streets of the East Village in his pyjamas; on his way neither to martyrdom nor acclaim. The ignominy of this film is fully anchored in the belief that it was Basquiat who lost his Faustian wager with fame, money and the white art world. If this film were a Mellville novel Schnabel would be the huge white whale - Basquiat the one who gets eaten.
First published in Issue 32