What does it mean to be an artist? What does it mean to sell out? Who do we make art for, especially in a capitalist market? These are just a few of the complicated issues that writer/director/producer/star Radha Blank takes on in her semiautobiographical debut feature “The Forty-Year-Old Version.” But she approaches these heavy-duty questions about art and identity with featherweight touch, and her voice is so cutting, compassionate and clear, it’s like oxygen. She makes it look so easy, it’s no wonder the film won the directing prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
There’s a refreshingly lo-fi, ‘90s indie film aesthetic to the black-and-white “Forty-Year-Old Version” shot in New York City. This palette places the emphasis on dialogue and character, but it also nods to a very specific type of independent film from the ‘80s and ‘90s: auteur-driven, low-budget, innovative character and place-oriented films usually made and populated by male filmmakers (Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Kevin Smith). With that choice, Blank stakes her claim and places herself within that pantheon. The twist is that this film centers on a Black woman’s lived experience authored by that very Black woman.
Blank stars as Radha (a cinematic version of herself), a struggling playwright living in Harlem teaching theater classes to a group of rambunctious high school students while trying to get her most recent work off the ground at a local Black theater company. Yearning for more traditional trappings of success (like money), she badgers her best friend and agent Archie (Peter Y. Kim) for a bigger production. So Archie presses the flesh in the tony inner circles of the very white Manhattan theater scene, urging Radha to woo a prospective producer, J. Whitman (Reed Birney), who in turn promises to produce her play if it’s more about “gentrification” and requests she write a Harriet Tubman musical.
Whitman is an example of the piercingly funny satire of white theater producers Blank delivers in “The Forty-Year-Old Version.” In this searing but also hilarious sendup, Black creators are hired to make Black art for white people, who urge them to include more strife, more hip-hop, more vernacular, more stereotypes, even if it’s not accurate to their experience or story.
This world has Radha at her breaking point. After an unfortunate incident with Whitman at a cocktail party, her real voice, stifled by producers, gatekeepers and critics, comes spilling forth in words and rhymes as she raps in front of her bedroom mirror. She follows this creative muse like an addict, finding an underground producer, D (Oswin Benjamin), and recording a track titled “Poverty Porn,” taking on the MC handle Radhamus Prime with an idea to make a mix tape. While it’s clear a creative fire has been lit, after bombing at a live showcase, she returns to the theater, still attached to these notions of success as an artist, as a fulfillment of her own mother’s dream. However, it’s not until Radha is true to herself and her own desires that she can be satisfied at all.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is that rarest of films: funny, wry, incisive, sexy and sincere. It never dips into treacly or sentimental thanks to Blank’s authorial voice and performance, which is refreshingly self-reflective but never self-obsessed. It’s inspiring, too, as Radha exhorts every version of ourselves, especially the 40-year-old ones, to “find your own voice, fill your own void, fund your own vision.” She did, and the 2020 movie landscape is that much richer for it.
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