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Kelvin Harrison Jr. to star in new Jean-Michel Basquiat biopic
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 "SA Starrett-LehigMO©."
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.
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.
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."
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 Building in New York City from April.