Radha Blank’s ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’ Tells a Story of Tenacity We All Need in 2020
Radha Blank – the director, writer, and star of The Forty-Year-Old Version – is exactly the heroine we need for this moment. Her version of New York – influenced by talents as different as Woody Allen and Spike Lee – is a multi-racial panoply of the city and its boroughs that’s authentic and beautiful (and lovingly shot in black and white with effective pops of color). It’s the perfect backdrop for the story of a soon-to-be-40 Black playwright and her struggles in an industry evolving too slowly to catch up to the changing racial dynamic of the country.
“The reason I had to shoot the film in black and white,” she has said of The Forty-Year-Old Version, “is that there’s nothing more New York than a black and white film, and in my own way I’m retrofitting the film back into a canon that I love from the 70s and 80s, telling a story that should have been told all those years ago: this is another [type of] New Yorker. I’m a New Yorker. It’s just that the camera was angled in one direction and we had to pivot it over here.”
Despite the tribulations of the plot, the view she offers us is fundamentally life-affirming, aspirational. Based on her own life (and highly fictionalized), the film’s version of Radha Blank, the character, is still suffering from the loss of her artist mother a year prior. It’s been longer since she was declared one of the 30-under-30 playwrights to keep an eye on, and she’s getting by as a creative writing teacher while still shopping her work, with the help of her gay best friend (and manager) Archie, to the Broadway elite (in the form of the white producer Josh Whitman). Inspired for the first time in ages – and while the producer is staging her gentrification play Harlem Ave. with suggested alterations (add a white family; have the lead African-American female speak in stereotypical dialect) – she brushes off an age-old high school alter-ego, RadhaMUS Prime, and starts working with a younger hip-hop beat maker, D, who’s impressed by her passion and talent (and who likes his women thick).
The film is messy in the best way. This portrait of a life in flux is populated with great characters that never (or, more precisely, rarely) tip over into stereotype. D, played by newcomer Oswin Benjamin, seems exactly like the received perception of how a hip-hop producer would be, though he confounds expectations at every point. Their slow flirtation feels organic and measured. Radha’s students are like a bomber crew from the ’40s, archetypes that aren’t pinned down by ideas of inner-city youth (or what her character describes as “poverty porn” in one of the best running jokes in the film). The Broadway producer, played by the Tony-winning actor Reed Birney, is an elder theatre queen who uses every interaction as a transaction – whether it’s pressuring Radha to revise her vision for the Great White hegemony, or getting Archie, to whom he’s brazenly attracted, to jiggle his balls in order for his client to get her big break. And best of all is Archie, the gay best friend who’s not merely there to prop up the star of the show. He has his own agency and agendas, and Peter Kim never lets us lose sight of their deep-seated love for each other, even when they are sparring and tearing each other apart.
Blank – playing a version of herself in The Forty-Year-Old Version – is such an effortless performer that it would be easy to dismiss the enormity of what she achieves. “It’s me but a heightened version,” she has said. “She is who I wish I could be all the time. She tells it like it is. What we have in common is how we use rejection to fuel an idea. My character, the idea of her becoming a rapper is a joke until she starts rhyming. And for me, when I first decided I wanted to shoot this in black and white, everyone was like, ‘why would you do that?’ It’s a matter of trusting your impulses.”
Yet her acting is merely the start here. She’s been known primarily as a writer – for Baz Luhrmann’s The Get-Down and Spike Lee’s Netflix serialization of She’s Gotta Have It, as well as a number of produced and unproduced plays – though it’s her work behind the camera that’s most impressive. She gives the patchwork city its due; and makes it come alive in the details. For this, the film was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for Best Director at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Upon accepting it, Blank said, “Anybody who feels there’s an expiration on a passion, fuck that shit. If it’s in you to be a rapper, a parent, a director in your 40s, do that shit.” In light of the vast unemployment in this truly surreal year of 2020, these are words to live by for all those suddenly without prospects. No matter what your age, the film tells us, strive to be the best version of yourself that you can be.