The short life and meteoric rise of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
will once again be told on the silver screen in an upcoming biopic directed by Nigerian American filmmaker Julius Onah.
Actor Kelvin Harrison Jr., star of the 2019 films “Waves” and “Luce” — the latter of which was directed by Onah — will play the Haitian and Puerto Rican visual artist, whose trailblazing career helped define New York’s East Village art scene in the 1980s. The news was announced via a website for the film, which is titled “Samo Lives” in reference to Basquiat’s famous graffiti tag “SAMO©.”
In a director’s statement on the site, Onah said he has been inspired by Basquiat’s life from a young age.
“It was incredible to discover someone who boldly forged his own path into a world where most who didn’t fit the expected profile of a fine artist had been unable to (i.e. white and male),” Onah wrote.
Basquiat rose to fame as a protégé of Warhol, and their deaths within a two years of each other rocked the art world. Credit: Richard Drew/AP
Alongside peers Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, Basquiat became synonymous with the New York
art and nightlife scene before his death at age 27. His complex relationship with his mentor Andy Warhol
has continued to fascinate the art world, with books and exhibitions dedicated to their creative and personal dynamic.
At age 22, Basquiat featured in the prestigious Whitney Biennial and, in doing so, became the youngest artist to ever represent the US in an international contemporary art exhibition, according to Christie’s auction house. He has continued to have a profound effect on visual culture and the art market, with an instantly recognizable iconography of skulls and crowns, and vibrant Neo-Expressionist paintings that regularly fetch tens of millions
of dollars at auction.
The most expensive Basquiat work ever to appear at auction — and also the most expensive work by an American artist — is a 1982 “Untitled” canvas that sold
for $110.5 million in 2017. His artworks have been collected by celebrities including Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz, as well as Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Last year, luxury jewelry brand Tiffany & Co. launched a campaign
featuring the latter couple in front of a never-before-seen Basquiat painting, attracting criticism
for the promotional context in which the artwork was placed.
Since his death at age 27, Basquiat has become an art market favorite, with his paintings regularly selling for tens of millions of dollars. Credit: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media/Getty Images
Though the charismatic artist’s life has been adapted to film before — artist and director Julian Schnabel’s 1996 take saw actor Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat, with David Bowie
playing Warhol — “Samo Lives” will be the first led by a Black filmmaker, as Onah pointed out in his statement.
Onah said that he believes Basquiat’s story “hadn’t fully been told” on screen. “Never have we seen the full spectrum of Basquiat’s incredible life as a Black artist and a child of the immigrant African diaspora,” he said, adding that Harrison will bring “sensitivity and soulfulness to the role.”
Kelvin Harrison Jr., pictured at the UK premiere of “Cyrano” last month, will play Jean-Michel Basquiat. Credit: Joe Maher/Getty Images for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures & Universal Pictures
Harrison shared the news of his casting, first revealed by Variety, to his Instagram account
alongside the caption “Same ol’ sh*t” — the origin of Basquiat’s moniker SAMO.
An eagerly anticipated new exhibition of the artist’s work is also set to open this spring. Featuring some 200 rare works put together by Basquiat’s family, “King Pleasure” will show at the Starrett Lehigh Gallery in New York City from April.