Film project promotes visual literacy, unity

This year, the Free Library of Philadelphia’s “One Film” project seeks to enhance visual literacy among Philadelphians with the biographical motion picture of a legendary graffiti artist who deals with racial, political and sexual issues.

In the opening scene of Basquiat, a boy with a sparkling crown looks in amazement at the art on the wall. His mother seems sad but is then reassured as she sees the beaming crown on top of the child’s head. The art has captured its true king, and Basquiat is his name.

The Free Library of Philadelphia’s “One Film” project is enabling the community to come together to embrace and learn movies. This year’s film is Julian Schnabel’s biographical motion picture, Basquiat.

Graffiti art in the 1980s flourished in New York City, where Jean-Michel Basquiat led the scene. The graffiti artist gained international praise for his complex and abstract paintings, which made him a legend of neo-expressionist art.

Basquiat aims to open up the inner mind of the artist and shows the sacrificial dog-eat-dog art world that consumed Basquiat’s downfall.

Basquiat covers a range of topics, including race, class, politics and sexuality.

“We chose the film because it would create such a discussion,” said Sara Strickland, special events assistant for “One Film.” “You either like it or hate it a lot, and it’s a perfect breeding ground for good discussion.”

The goal of the “One Film” screening of Basquiat is to try to put forth issues that may be relevant to Philadelphians while spreading film education and visual literacy.

Film critics said Schnabel was hesitant to depict the reality of Basquiat’s problems with race and sexuality in the film.

“[Basquiat] struck as more visually daring but at times excessively romantic,” said Dr. Timothy Corrigan, professor of cinema studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

The racial politics of Basquiat show the cultural exploitation in the art world. Purposely labeled and categorized as “a black artist,” the issues of race and class subjected Basquiat to a quiet alienation. Always surrounded by white artists, Basquiat manipulated the culture to express himself and be recognized as an artist.

Recognition and celebrity intertwine as primary motifs in Basquiat. Those 15 minutes of fame are expressed when Basquiat says, “How long does it take to get famous?”

It becomes apparent in the film that Basquiat’s abstract paintings are complex reflections of himself. Though recognition allowed Basquiat to move up the social class ladder, race was always an issue to him.

“The great struggle that Basquiat dealt with his entire life [was] the issue of race and family,” Strickland said. “[Those were] probably the two things that dragged him down.”

Schnabel’s Basquiat makes the imagination wonder in multiple colors of the spectrum. Looking at the sky, Basquiat saw New York City’s skyline depicted with surfers and blue ocean waves. The imagery of the surfers riding the waves foreshadows Basquiat’s life of being caught up in a turbulent wave. Riding the waves, he was the surfer riding the art world but inevitably lost control by letting the waves drag him down.

Coming from a middle class family with no solid family structure, the need for companionship is depicted in Basquiat’s questionable relationship with artist Andy Warhol. Throughout Basquiat’s artistic career, drugs were always an underlying presence. Basquiat ultimately gets swallowed by the waves of the art world and dies of a drug overdose.

The last scene of Basquiat shows the story of a young king who is lost in a hole, never to be found.

“He was lost, but his paintings were alive in making people happy,” said film viewer Gregory Walker, “enjoying the beauty of his work.”

Sandra Rollins can be reached at

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