Tamra Davis Talks About Her New Film: “Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Radiant Child”

by Mikki Halpin

What happens when a super-talented badass makes a film about another super-talented badass? If you’re lucky, the result is something like “Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Radiant Child,” director Tamra Davis’ new film about her friend, the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. While deeply emotional, “Radiant Child” resists mythologizing its subject, a self-taught graffiti artist and painter who rose to fame in the art world while challenging some of its most precious assumptions. Davis tells the story through those who knew Jean-Michel, who recall both good times and bad, along with some epic 80s moments, as in when one of his girlfriends gets in a fight with Madonna at the Limelight.

I was really struck by how much Basquiat is a movie about friendship. You yourself even appear in the film, talking about your friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat. How did you meet him, and what kind of friend was he?

I really treasured my friendship with him. I was so happy that we were friends for so long. I knew that Jean-Michel had many people in his life that were once his friends but that for whatever reasons he had alienated himself from almost all of them. Towards the end of his life there were only a few people left that he felt he could call. I loved having him as a friend in the good times and also that he knew I was there for him when he was feeling down. He was always super generous as a friend, loved to have fun, did spontaneous things and made every moment special. He also could be exhausting trying to keep up with his never stop energy.

The movie opens with footage you shot of Jean-Michel many years ago, and you tell us that after he died you put the footage away. What made you decide to revisit it, and to make this movie?

I saw him only a few weeks before he died and one of the things that had made him so sad was he felt his friends had cashed in on their relationships with him. Whether it was by selling works that he had given to them as a gift or said things about him that he felt was personal. He felt betrayed and that his friends didn’t really value what was special. When he died I took my film and put it in a drawer. Even though he was dead I didnt want him to think the same of me. I also was so sad that he had died that it seemed like it would be a painful experience making a film right after he died.

I pretty much forgot about the footage and went on with my own ambitious career. I would read articles, books and see films about Jean and felt that no one had captured the Jean-Michel that I knew. It wasn’t until I showed my footage to some friends of mine who work at MOCA when they were launching a Basquiat retrospective that I realized how rare and important the footage was. After 20 years of people talking about Jean-Michel I felt compelled, maybe by Jean himself, to let Jean have a say in who he was.  Now seemed to be the best time.  I also felt we could have a valid discussion about his art, now that we had some perspective.

Most people in the film describe Jean-Michel as being very ambitious, and specifically wanting to be famous. I got the sense that he wanted to be famous in part at least because he was very aware of what the effect of him becoming famous might have on the world and specifically the art world–that they would have to redefine genius to include someone like him. Do I win, with my insightful analysis? Why do you think he wanted to be famous, and when he was famous, did it make him happy?

It’s so hard to understand someone else’s desire for fame and recognition. I feel we were very similar in the sense that we were young and had something to prove. Could we create a future where a woman could be a top director? A black kid a top artist? Is the world we live in changing and open to accepting us? We felt we were just as smart, just as good as anyone that had come before us. We will show everyone.  These are the things we would talk about in our 20’s. These are the idealistic conversations we bonded over.

I love in my interview when we ask him how he felt now that he achieved much of the success that he had sought, how did it feel? His answer was that he felt that he was right.  I think that’s what any ambitious young person wants. To be recognized that your art is valid. You are right.

Let’s talk about you, Tamra Davis. Your resume includes directing an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”, a Chris Rock movie, the Hanson MMM-Bop video, Britney Spears’s first feature film, and “Gun Crazy”, in which Drew Barrymore murders her stepfather and then goes on a crime spree with her ex-con boyfriend. Explain this career to me. How do you decide what to work on?

Adam Sandler, Dave Chapelle, my Cooking Show… I work on projects that I am passionate about. I looked at the passport size photo of the Hanson boys and thought if I was a 12 year old girl I would be MADLY in LOVE with Taylor. So I directed the video as if I was their biggest fan. I came to set every day on “Billy Madison” or “CB4” with the same feeling of going to school with a crush. I just directed a TV movie/pilot called “Single Ladies” that’s like a female “Entourage” set in Atlanta starring Stacy Dash. I wanted to be her. So some how I use my passion to fuel me and my brain to figure out how the heck to stay on schedule and make a beautiful film. 

For more on the movie, including showtimes and venues, visit the website for “Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Radiant Child.” Disclosure: Tamra Davis is a supporter of the Sarah Jacobson Film Grant, for which I am the administrator.

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