The Forty-Year-Old Version movie review: Radha Blank's Sundance breakout hit is a sharp comedy about artistic compromise
The real triumph of The 40-Year-Old Version is of course Radha Blank, who announces herself as a fiery new cinematic voice.
castRadha Blank, Reed Birney, Oswin Benjamin, Peter Kim, Imani Lewis, Jacob Ming-trent, Antonio Ortiz
Woody Allen did it with Manhattan. Whit Stillman with Metropolitan. Greta Gerwig (and Noah Baumbach) with Frances Ha. In their inimitable ways, these movies captured the zeitgeist through the lives of New York's tormented intellectuals. The city, pulled from the backdrop to the forefront as a character, embodied the angst of a generation and almost imposed a new way of being.
Radha Blank does something similar with her debut feature, The 40-Year-Old Version. Like her predecessors, she composes a gorgeous love letter to New York, but enriches it with a point-of-view they never considered: of a Black woman. More precisely, a 40-year-old Black woman trying to self-actualise in Harlem. Shot in black-and-white 35mm, the Netflix comedy — which Blank wrote, directed, produced and stars in — is a fictionalised account of her own life as a struggling playwright.
If you've watched any or all of the aforementioned movies, you’ll know New York can be as empowering as restraining for an artist struggling with self-doubt. Radha lost her mother a year ago. She is slowly losing interest in her career as a playwright, and worries she may have lost her voice too. To make ends meet, she teaches drama to a bunch of overenthusiastic but supportive high school students. Facing a mid-life crisis after hitting the big four-o, she decides to reinvent herself as a rapper.
To “find your own voice, fill your own void, fund your own vision” is already an exhausting artistic struggle, but it becomes all the more difficult for a 40-year-old Black woman trying to stay employed and relevant in a Manhattan theatre scene that is overwhelmingly white. When she decides to write a play about gentrification in Harlem, her best friend and agent Archie (Peter Kim) gets her a meeting with one of the gatekeepers, a producer named J Whitman (Reed Birney). Only, he wants her to rewrite it to appease his own white liberal point-of-view: he insists she include a white character and stereotypes like the "sassy old Black woman". And she does. Like she says, "he's writing the check."
At various points in the film, we hear pitches for musicals on Black civil rights icons like Harriet Tubman, Ida B Wells and Shirley Chisholm. All this is symptomatic of a white liberal's false sense of progressiveness, as if the only stories about the Black experience worth being told are feel-bad ones that effect white guilt, as if the white audiences deserve a pat on the back because the quality of life has improved so much more for Black people today, and as if Black art cannot be about anything other than race. We also hear insufferable white patrons rave about “an all-male version of Steel Magnolias” and "an all-female version of 12 Angry Men." This is a clear dig at Hollywood's own faux-progressive gimmicks, merely gender-flipping existing male characters instead of developing authentic new female ones. Like the white people, some of the teenagers may also come across as caricatures but it never feels insensitive. Blank isn't afraid to laugh at herself too of course: her cracking knees make for an endearing gag.
Radha’s dilemma is a familiar one: the compromise of art and commerce. She can choose to have her work produced as-is by a Black theatre company which won't pay a lot, or a wealthy white producer who will force her to tailor it to a mainstream audience. Opting for the former won't help her reach a wider audience, but opting for the latter will require her to compromise her artistic integrity. What starts off as a casual venting of her frustrations ends in her rebirth as RadhaMUSprime. She enlists the help of a 26-year-old DJ named D (Oswin Benjamin), who finds her middle-aged perspective far more refreshing than the usual twenty-somethings who visit his home recording studio. With this conscious awakening of her rap alter-ego, she turns her muzzled rage and resentment into blistering verses on the white commodification of Black suffering, and comical ones on white men with big butts. In one of the more touching scenes, she joins D as they both mourn their mothers in a rap duet.
The real triumph of The 40-Year-Old Version is of course Blank, who announces herself as a fiery new cinematic voice. As her Directing Award win at Sundance proves, she is a gifted filmmaker with an instinctive sense of where to put the camera and what she chooses to show in the frame. Mining her own experiences adds a certain vérité to her performance. The more you see the world through Radha's eyes, the more real her character becomes — and you can't help but imagine her life beyond the closing credits. It is a rare pleasure to see a Black character, who is not just a pretext to discuss or denounce an idea. She is a wholly unique character in herself, yet her struggle mirrors many of our own: the difficulty of making a living from art in a capitalist system, the inherent vulnerability of showcasing your art to the world, and the fight to ensure moral ground when forced to water down the message of your art. Its mic drop climax may feel like Blank is striving for a convenient conclusion, but it doesn't undercut the urgency of the message that came before it. The film thus becomes a celebratory and defiant manifesto for the amplification of Black voices in comedy and cinema.
The 40-Year-Old Version is now streaming on Netflix.
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