Harrison and Onah previously collaborated on the critically acclaimed drama “Luce,” which nabbed best male lead and best director nominations at the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards.
Developed and financed by Endeavor Content, the biographical film, titled “Samo Lives,” will celebrate the life, career and impact of the groundbreaking New York-born, Haitian-Puerto Rican American artist whose seminal paintings and street art defined the Neo-expressionism arts movement of the 1980s.
In 1983, Basquiat became the youngest artist to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial in New York, at just 22 years old. The acclaimed artist died on August 12, 1988 at the age of 27, but his work continues to make a great impact on the art world. At a Sotheby’s auction in 2017, Basquiat’s painting “Untitled” sold for $110.5 million, becoming one of the most expensive paintings ever purchased and subsequently raising the bar for an American artist at auction.
In a lengthy statement — the full measure of which is available on samolives.com — Onah detailed his history with Basquiat’s works and explained his vision for the project, which he will direct and produce, after co-writing the script with Peter Glanz (“The Longest Week,” “Polite Society”).
“Jean-Michel Basquiat redefined the idea of who ascends to the highest altitudes of the fine art world. 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,” Onah wrote. “It’s an honor to work with Kelvin and my collaborators, and with Endeavor Content, to celebrate the legacy of an artist who has invited audiences everywhere to be inspired by the transformative power of art.”
In his statement, Onah also shared that he first discovered Basquiat when he was 14 years old, but was also inspired by Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film “Basquiat,” starring Jeffrey Wright as the artist.
“It was a gateway for a kid desperate to find artists he could see himself in. But the older I got and the more I learned about Jean-Michel, the more I began to feel his story hadn’t fully been told in cinema,” Onah explained. “Never have we seen the full spectrum of Basquiat’s incredible life as a Black artist and a child of the immigrant African diaspora. And the richness and nuance of his journey is a story worthy of celebration.”
Notably, “Samo Lives” will be the first film about Basquiat to be envisioned by a Black filmmaker. The project will be financed by Endeavor Content and produced by the team behind “Luce” (Onah, John Baker, Rob Feng, and Eric Ro), with Harrison as executive producer. Filming is expected to begin this fall.
The opportunity to portray the genius artist is described as a “dream come true” for Harrison, who Onah praised for his “ability to locate and channel the spirit of whoever he inhabits.”
“The sensitivity and soulfulness Kelvin will bring is the reason why I know the story I’m seeking to tell will truly honor Jean-Michel’s legacy,” the filmmaker wrote.
Following the pair’s collaboration on “Luce,” Harrison has delivered a series of celebrated film and TV performances, including writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ “Waves” (for which he nabbed a BAFTA Rising Star Award nomination) and Epix’s “The Godfather of Harlem.” In 2021, the young actor won a SAG Award alongside the ensemble cast of “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Harrison most recently starred as Christian in “Cyrano” opposite Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett. The musical film, directed by Joe Wright, is set to open in select theaters on Jan. 28, before going wide on Feb. 4. He is also set to voice a young Scar in Barry Jenkins’ “The Lion King” prequel and landed the leading role in Searchlight Pictures’ “Chevalier de Saint-Georges.” Harrison is represented by WME, Stride Management and Del, Shaw, Moonves, Tanaka, Finkelstein & Lezcano.
Onah is represented by CAA, LBI Entertainment, and Gang, Tyre, Ramer, Brown & Passman; Glanz is repped by ICM, Mosaic, and Hansen, Jacobson, Teller, Hoberman, Newman, Warren, Richman, Rush, Kaller & Gellman, as well as Merman for commercials.
News of the Basquiat project comes as Endeavor Content celebrates the critical success of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter,” which has emerged as an early awards contender and is now streaming on Netflix. The global film and television studio is gearing up to release their biggest film to date, Michael Bay’s action-thriller “Ambulance,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, on April 8.