Downtown 81 is a snapshot of a day in the life of Jean-Michael Basquiat and his cohorts in the no wave, hip-hop, graffiti and the alternative fashion scenes. The film is based on Basquiat’s life but there are many unreal situations that occur in the movie. The film doesn’t have a linear story: there are many side plots and it is very atmospheric. The film is an example of afro-futurism, a literary and cultural aesthetic concerned with the future of black people in an alternate universe that reimagines the past and present of black people. The film is also an example of a black feminist work. Downtown 81 contribute to black feminist thought through its demonstration of the knowledge and practices of black feminism.
The movie was written by Glenn O’ Brien, host of the public-access television show in New York City “TV-Party,” which ran from 1978–1982. He interviewed artists like David Byrne, Debbie Harry, and Basquiat. O’Brien was fascinated by Basquiat, and decided to write a film that was “an exaggerated version of (his) life,” he said. The films relationship to magical realism is a product of O’Briens exaggerated representation of Basquiat.
In the first part of the paper I define Afro-futurism. Afro-futurism establishes an intermediary between the present, past and future. The work represents the “new directions in the study of African Diaspora culture that are grounded in the histories of black communities,” according to Alondra Nelson, author of the work “Future Texts”. Alondra Nelson was one of the first scholars to write extensively on the subject along with Mark Dery who wrote the essay “Black to the Future.” Afro-futurism “operates as a counter-narrative to popular visual imagery that depicts “black bodies in pain.”
After explaining Afro-futurism and the black feminist practices within afro-futurism I connect them all: how this movie is an example of black feminist practice. Downtown 81 is an example of Afro-futuristic practices because of how the movie presents blackness in unfamiliar way that is influenced by things such as afro-centricism. Even though it doesn’t assume a race less future and there are examples of racism in the movie, it shows a more integrated society. The film is interspersed with eclectic performances by artists in all genres: from the Cuban-inspired Kid Creole and the Coconuts to the dance punk of Liquid Liquid and the emergent sounds of hip-hop through Fab 5 Freddy. I also analyze Basquiat’s masculinity through Dany Laferrière’s work called “Trans-American Construction of Black Masculinity,” which deconstructs the stereotype of black masculinity as “hyper-sexed, threatening, and often predatory.” Basquiat presents an alternative version to those stereotypes in those films.
Then I examine the context the movie was made in through the scene at Fab 5 Freddy’s party. This was the beginning of hip-hop and I explain the conditions in the city at the time that birthed hip-hop. Other sources that I recommend because they are fun, interesting, and give a picture of New York City during this time are Beat Street and Style Wars. They show how cultural production and senses of identity were created with destruction of the homes and communities
Even though this is an example of an afro-futuristic work, there are places where it is complicated as a work concerned with black feminism. For instance, there are no black women in the movie, complicating the picture we see of black people at that time because it obscures intersectionality. While the movie imagines a somewhat race less future there is much structured racism in the film. I show how even a movie that is not about race becomes racialized because we live in a society that is predicated on racism and the patriarchy.
Even though the film is problematic in some respects it is a valuable cultural production because of how it reimagines the black experience. In its presentation of an alternate reality it celebrates blackness. The film celebrates endless possibilities for different kinds of black expression.