Jeffrey Wright in Basquiat (1996)
Jeffrey Wright in Basquiat (1996) (Credit: ImDb)

Basquiat (1996) film review & summary, Where to watch

Title: Basquiat
Director: Julian Schnabel
Duration: 1h 50m
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Benicio del Toro, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe, Parker Posey, Claire Forlani

Every few years, since at least the mid-1990s, a sudden resurgence, sort of a renaissance of Basquiat, always comes up out of nowhere. Indeed, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s influence on modern art is itself a culture, in music, painting, film, and even fashion; Basquiat’s legacy can be seen everywhere without even having to look closely.

In the years since his untimely death in ’89, Basquiat’s fame has skyrocketed, his legacy has been cemented as one of the art world’s greatest, his art has been auctioned for a record price, Jay-Z has worn his hair like him, his family has made documentaries, and a Nigerian pop star has made his sophomore album a Basquiatian work of art (Asake, “Work of Art” 2023).

In all this time, only one satisfying biopic has been made about the life of Basquiat, and it is in its own right, a masterpiece. How black it is, is a subjective matter but the fact of the matter is that Basquiat (1996) is a chronicle of the life and times of one of the greatest African-American icons of the 20th century.

The film, which opens with narration from Rene Richard (Michael Wincott), a queer New York agent/reporter who discovered Jean-Michel all by himself and put him in a circle that turned into a box that Basquiat would never be able to get out of until his drug-related death in 1989.

Of all the things the movie gets right, one of the most important is David Bowie’s portrayal of Andy Warhol, who at some point was Basquiat’s only friend and mentor.

Basquiat didn’t die on screen but he could as well have. The two-hour runtime was enough for him to fall in love with a beautiful woman, Gina (Claire Forlani), lose the woman because of stupidity, overdose on drugs, have a near-death experience, lose his best friend, become famous, become infamous, and experience the tragedy that was the death of his only friend, Andy Warhol.

Jeffrey Wright’s portrayal of Jean-Michel Basquiat is an all-time biopic performance and if it was a movie about a pop star or a sports legend, the film would most definitely have been a classic big-screen hit. But that’s just the thing, Basquiat’s short-lived fame was as big as any pop star’s or sports legend. And although that fame died before he died at 27, Basquiat’s life is a work of art, a beautiful work of the classical tragedy of the starving artist and the misunderstood genius. And that was all 1996’s Basquiat was all about.

The actors pulled their weights but the story itself left them in the shadows. There is Benicio del Toro in the role of Basquiat’s first best friend, Benny, who ditched him once he started to get a little famous. Then there is the talented Dennis Hopper in the role of Bruno Bischofberg, Andy Warhol’s right-hand man. David Bowie of course stole the show with his portrayal of Andy Warhol, and for all his pop stardom, imagine Bowie’s best performance being from a 1996 biopic of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Poetic.

Needless to say, a remake is long overdue already.

Rotten Tomatoes: 67%
IMDb: 6.9/10
Letterboxd: 3.4/5

Where to Watch Do the Right Thing (1989)?

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