Radha has hit a wall. Once a promising “30 Under 30” playwright, she now faces her 40s with nothing but a stalled career, a thankless teaching job, and a crummy Brooklyn apartment to show for it. When opportunity knocks, she opts to…wait for it…pursue rapping instead. Beautifully shot in black and white by the gifted cinematographer, Eric Branco, The Forty-Year-Old Version marks an auspicious quadruple threat debut (Radha Blank writes, directs, produces and stars as herself) which may remind you of She’s Gotta Have It (Blank served as a writer on the series) and 8 Mile, but it has its own distinctive flavour. Although charmingly comedic and hugely endearing, the film also has the smarts to present a voice rightfully filled with rage against misogyny and racism.
It’s easy to fall in love with Radha. When we first meet her, she gets turned on so much by the sounds of her neighbors having sex that she falls down on the floor with a thud. Using Spike Lee’s method of including straight-to-camera footage of neighborhood folk weighing in like a Greek chorus, Radha feels stifled by their judgment. Most of her drama students don’t take her seriously, since a real playwright wouldn’t need to teach. One exception, Rosa (a delightful Haskiri Velazquez), harbors a not-so-subtle crush on her, but it’s not enough to lift Radha from the hell in which she finds herself. Archie (Peter Kim), her gay agent and lifelong best friend, wants her to meet with Josh Whitman (a perfectly oily Reed Birney), an influential producer who will undoubtedly dampen her play’s power, but Radha, as much as she wants to pay her rent, fears the inevitable compromises will suck her soul dry. So off she goes with a bag of weed to bribe a producer named D (Oswin Benjamin) to lay down a track. To D’s surprise, this middle-aged Black woman who calls herself RadhaMUSPrime (!), knocks it out of the park with her song, Poverty Porn, a diatribe against people who characterize the Black experience as one restricted to suffering and violence. It’s a great scene and one which galvanizes the film, informing every moment thereafter.
Blank impressively spins a lot of plates here, weaving in a romance or two, the lives of her students, and her complicated relationship with Peter against the backdrop of her upcoming production and occasional rap battles. Her handling of the film’s queer characters gives us some seemingly surface-level people only to surprise us with their depth. Kim in particular takes the “fussy gay” archetype and reveals the pain and sacrifices usually given short shrift in lesser hands.
I’d typically say we have an overabundance of story and an excessive running time, but Blank’s prickly, dignified, yet unpretentious performance kept me interested from beginning to end. Blank particularly understands the cringe factor of an all white team mounting her Harlem-based play. In addition to Birney, the always fantastic Welker White has strong moments as the play’s completely tone-deaf director. Kudos also go to the the perfect reactions of the mostly white and elderly audience who dance in their seats to a sanitized hip-hop number. With this, Blank satirizes cultural appropriation such as how white audiences grooved in their tuxedos and gowns to shows like Hamilton. I’ve never wanted a group of “woke” people to go back to sleep more than I have with this film.
While revenge against her oppressors certainly appears on the menu, Blank wisely understands the complexity of her character. She may have a righteous cause, but she’s also flawed and a little too self-absorbed. Although this film’s framework plays into many tried and true showbiz story tropes, its specificity of a woman who refuses to play the “party bauble” gives us a heroine we can not only relate to, but one who we can cheer for in the end. That she does so with such confident filmmaking skills makes Radha Blank an obvious “50 under 50” candidate.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
The Forty-Year-Old Version is now streaming on Netflix.