The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) ★★★★1/2
Written & Directed by Rahda Blank
Streaming on Netflix
I finally caught up with Radha Blank’s debut feature after hearing good things about it all year long on Twitter and elsewhere. It premiered at Sundance and the buzz that followed it reminded me of the excitement that accompanied Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird. As with Gerwig’s debut, I was rooting for it, but worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype. But a great movie has a way of making you forget the chatter and even your own expectations. From the first scene of this joyful, layered story of self-creation, I found it hard to believe that it was Blank’s first film. It is so assured, and wears its influences so lightly, that it feels like the work of a much more seasoned filmmaker.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is explicitly autobiographical, starting with the title, which lets you know you’re dealing with a character and a filmmaker in middle age. Blank stars as Radha, a playwright who hasn’t lived up to her artistic potential. One of the running jokes is that Radha was once singled out as a young playwright to watch, one of the “30 under 30.” Now, as she’s barely under forty, she can’t get anyone to pay attention to her. The irony is that she has a lot more to say. She’s also lost the ability — if she ever had it — to suffer the fools who might fund her productions. Blank’s satirical look into New York theater world reveals a capricious society dominated by white gatekeepers and superficial ideas of diversity. There are blank checks on offer, but not for Radha who, as a Black woman, must offer a view of Black life that is familiar to white audiences, i.e. a story that centers on trauma and economic hardship. There’s no room for Radha to write about the things that preoccupy her, such as the recent death of her mother and her relationship with her brother, whose calls she’s been avoiding. There’s also very little space for her comedy, which is self-deprecating and goofy in the vein of Woody Allen — in fact, quite a lot of this movie reminded me of Allen’s Manhattan, from its send-up of Manhattan’s elite to its crisp black-and-white cinematography that somehow made me nostalgic for MTA bus rides.
Radha makes a living by teaching theater in an afterschool program, and Blank’s attention to Radha’s classroom is free of sentimentality. Radha is not shown to impart wisdom to her students, and none are depicted as particularly gifted or troubled. They’re just kids, with their own kid dramas. They treat Radha as more of a peer than a teacher, and they are cruelly blunt in their assessment of her career: “You can’t even get a regional production.” Still, they look up to her and crave her approval. They show up for her when she performs, and are in some ways more supportive than her agent, a long-time friend who can’t hide his disappointment in her.
Desperate for a creative outlet, Radha looks back to her own teenage years and decides to return to her first literary love: hip hop. Adopting the moniker RadhaMUSPrime, she goes out to Far Rockaway to get beats from a producer, D, and to record a mixtape. Although she’s immediately very good in D’s apartment studio, she bombs her first public performance, causing her to second-guess her new ambition. Around the same time, a producer offers to stage her play, “Harlem Avenue,” but only if she’ll make certain changes to the script — one of which is to “personify gentrification” by adding a white female character. Radha agrees to the rewrites but her heart’s not in them, and the rehearsal process is awkward as she struggles to defend her writing decisions.
Radha finds herself drawn back to hip hop as she wrestles with the question of artistic compromise: how much she should alter her vision to gain a platform for her work? Although hip hop gives her a way to express her observations and obsessions, and is often an emotional release, it isn’t the answer to her stalled creative life. Standing up to her producers is also not the answer. The answer, you realize, is the movie you are watching: a portrait of an artist as a middle-aged woman that fuses hip hop and theater in the form of cinema. The camera gazes both at Rahda and the people in Radhas’s life, from the homeless man across the street who she chats with every morning, to her students, her agent, her brother, and her mother who is gone but lives on in the paintings and photographs she left behind. Film takes in the whole of Radha’s experience, where hip hop and theater can only manage a slice of life.
Throughout this movie I thought often of Spike Lee and Woody Allen, two New York filmmakers who have immortalized the city in their films and often write autobiographically, but by the end, I was thinking of Fellini’s 8 1/2, for the way it turns into a movie that’s about making art. It also reminded me of Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground, which is set in New York, and tells the story of a Black woman in academia who turns to filmmaking to find her voice. Blank’s film doesn’t reflect on filmmaking as directly as Fellini’s or Collins’s but like those movies, it’s about reclaiming the joy of creativity amidst the compromises of middle age.