Four decades after the late Jean-Michel Basquiat made his splashy debut in the New York art world, a new biopic about the painter is in the works, to be directed by Julius Onah and starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Cyrano) as the acclaimed artist. Titled, Samo Lives, the film is being developed by Endeavor Content and will begin shooting in the fall.
The acronym “Samo” (“same old, same old/same old shit”) had been Basquiat’s earlier graffiti tag. At 22, he became the youngest artist showcased in the 1983 Whitney Biennale, and a painting of his sold for $110 million at a Sotheby’s auction in 2017. The Neo-Expressionist painter was a chief avatar of the glam-studded, drug-fueled East Village art scene of the 1980s, which also brought artists like Keith Haring to prominence. Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in 1988, a year and a half before Haring succumbed to AIDS.
It will be the first film about the New York-born Haitian-Puerto Rican painter by a Black director: an earlier biopic, Basquiat (1996) had been directed by the art dealer Julian Schnabel with Jeffrey Wright in the title role. Onah and Harrison had earlier collaborated on the dramatic film Luce, which garnered them nominations for best actor and best director at the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards.
In announcing the new biopic, Julius Onah wrote in a statement (on samolives.com): “Simply put, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work and life has been an absolute inspiration. When I began to learn about him at the age of 14 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, himself the son of immigrants from Nigeria, described himself as “a stubborn child of the diaspora pursuing art, and spending formative years in the creative capital of the world.” Just five years old when Basquiat died in 1988; Onah says he also immersed himself in the downtown art scene and came to see Basquiat as an iconic and inspirational figure and role model.
“Jean-Michel Basquiat redefined the idea of who ascends to the highest altitudes of the fine art world,” wrote Onah. “But the complexity and richness of his experience as an artist and child of the African diaspora has yet to be dramatized in the manner it deserves.”
Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s most recent role was that of Christian in Joe Wright’s Cyrano, which will open at the end of January in select theaters.