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Jean-Michel Basquiat documentary ‘Boom for Real’ reveals the origins of an artist who influenced so much of contemporary hip-hop

From SAMO to ‘Famous Negro Athletes,’ Basquiat was the product of a grungy and dangerous New York

Jean-Michel Basquiat, the New York graffiti artist who became an international sensation before dying at 27, would have had some interesting things to say about today’s athlete-led protests for racial justice. For evidence, you need only look at his work, especially a series of paintings called Famous Negro Athletes.

They’re sketches of baseball players, usually oil stick on paper, and the athletes, famous though they may be, are indistinguishable, with their eyes poking out and their teeth twisted into crude grimaces. It’s a wry visual play on the idea that all black people look alike.

A portrait of Jackie Robinson features the head of the man who broke the color barrier playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers and one of Basquiat’s trademark crowns.

“He was very interested in black history, and in sports, and in baseball,” said Sara Driver, the artist and filmmaker who directed Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, which enters theaters Friday. “He’s so relevant now with what he said about police brutality in his paintings. And I love his love of jazz, of history, and the past and present. It’s just pointing out how they’re separated too. Famous Negro athletes, separated from other athletes as a category. That in itself is political. He was a very political artist.”

Driver’s documentary provides an excellent starting point for those unfamiliar with Basquiat’s short life — he died in 1988 of a heroin overdose — and extraordinary repertoire. Her film is an intense look at the grimy New York of the 1970s and early ’80s and establishes Basquiat as a locus for all the changes taking place in the city at the time, from the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx to the punk movement to the underground art scene. Keith Haring’s work was gaining notice, and so was that of Lee Quiñones, the graffiti artist known for his elaborate subway car murals.

The lawlessness of pre-Mayor Rudy Giuliani New York made it dangerous, but it also imbued the city with a special kind of freedom, Driver said, one that allowed a person like Basquiat, with little to no money, to explore everything. He was a musician. He was a street artist. He was an installation artist and a photographer. Experimental, unconstrained by traditional boundaries and inspired by refuse he’d simply take from the street.

“We were living in this bombed-out city where we had no law or rules, so we could create wherever we went,” said Driver, who was part of New York’s independent film scene at the time. “We could shoot movies without permits or insurance or any of the baloney you have to go through now.”

No wonder Jay-Z identifies with Basquiat: They’re both black artists who came from impoverished backgrounds and amassed fame and respect by celebrating and educating themselves.

In Boom for Real, Driver illustrates how all that helped to create SAMO, the pseudonym and alternative identity Basquiat developed with street artist Al Diaz. The two would tag the buildings of SoHo and the Lower East Side with cryptic lines of SAMO philosophy. Diaz recounts that Basquiat eventually hijacked SAMO for himself, and he was extremely resentful of Basquiat for it.

“We all knew each other from the clubs and from the street, and it was very dangerous and you had to be alert on the street, which also gave you gifts,” Driver said. “You would see things that — now you’re looking at your phone, so you’re not seeing these gifts that the world gives us. And that fed us.”

Her film shows a pre-fame Basquiat, before his iconic hairstyle, who was charming and nervy. There’s an amusing anecdote from Driver’s longtime partner, director Jim Jarmusch, who recounts Basquiat stealing a flower to give to Driver, not caring that she was already with Jarmusch.

Basquiat had the swagger of hip-hop, the politics of a revolutionary and the curiosity of a philosopher. He’d pretend to be a student at the School of Visual Arts and audit classes, and then read whatever he could find.

“He was going to his own university of the street, basically,” Driver said.

His influence continues to reverberate throughout the art world and pop culture. Basquiat’s Bottle is a popular gathering spot for Brooklyn’s black creatives. In 2017, the graffiti artist Banksy debuted a Basquiat-inspired work on the walls of London’s Barbican Centre ahead of the opening of a major exhibition of Basquiat’s work. One references Basquiat’s 1982 painting Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump but shows the artist being accosted by two police officers.

But it wasn’t until I saw Driver’s film that I finally began to understand why Basquiat shows up in contemporary hip-hop, and specifically the work of Jay-Z. When Jay-Z released Magna Carta … Holy Grail in 2013, it was easy to deride as a work of naked commercialism. The rapper took quite a bit of flak for debuting it with a Samsung app that sucked up a bunch of user data. And he kept dropping lines such as I’m the new Jean-Michel and rapping about his Warhols, Art Basel and Jeff Koons. He sounded like a hedgie who’d recorded a rap record. This was also the year the rapper collaborated with Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović to create the music video for “Picasso Baby.”

But if you pull back the hubris of “Picasso Baby,” what’s left is a man celebrating his great fortune in a way Basquiat didn’t live long enough to do. No wonder Jay-Z identifies with Basquiat: They’re both black artists who came from impoverished backgrounds and amassed fame and respect by celebrating and educating themselves. They’re far afield from The Establishment but eventually were recognized and celebrated by it.

Oh, sure, there’s a chance Basquiat would have become insufferable had he lived longer and gotten high off his own hype. But there’s also a chance the Basquiat who painted Famous Negro Athletes would remain too. And just like the man who’s the self-proclaimed “new Jean-Michel,” I bet he’d have quite a lot to say about Colin Kaepernick.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.