The Forty-Year-Old Version
Ten years ago, Radha was a promising playwright who made a “30 under 30” list. Now she is working as a dramatic writing teacher, while still looking for her big break. One day, she is riding the bus when she gets the inspiration to rap. Meanwhile, her best friend/manager tries to get her into the good graces of a theater producer with a lot of clout. The funny and thoughtful black-and-white comedy The Forty-Year-Old Version (streaming on Netflix) watches as the person she is battles with what she may have to do in order to get what she thinks she wants.
“A woman suddenly decides to become a rapper on the eve of her fortieth birthday” sounds like a good pitch for a movie. The Forty-Year-Old Version is much more than its cute, one-sentence synopsis. Radha Blank directed/produced/stars and wrote it, loosely based on her own experiences trying to make it as a playwright. She has more on her mind than making a formulaic underdog story. Radha’s rapping isn’t about turning her into an unlikely star. It’s about giving her a way to speak with the filters off; not for the benefit of others, but so she can get out her feelings, about her life and the world in general. This is a character study, with a lot to say concerning what someone like Radha has to do to take even the slightest step toward her dreams. Yet this is not a lecture. It is a funny and charming journey through her artistic struggle.
She has written a play she is proud of, about a black couple in Harlem. The local hotshot producer, J. Whitman, mainly makes productions featuring the suffering of black people, but seen through the eyes of a white character so as to attract white audiences. She has no interest in writing what she calls “Poverty Porn.” He reads her play and tells her it is inauthentic. Her manager, Archie, begs her to sacrifice: rewrite it to meet Whitman’s vision and then, maybe, somewhere down the line, after this is a hit, she can write something that says what she wants to say.
It is the old argument between art and commerce. Though she has lived in that area her whole life, if she wants to put it on stage, she has to deliver this wealthy white guy’s idea of Harlem. Rap is enticing to her because it gives her the freedom to say what she wants. Race, class and age are the major factors here, along with artistic integrity. Radha is desperate. But is she desperate enough to work on the type of thing she despises?
Radha Blank the screenwriter does a wonderful job of making us understand her inner fight without constantly beating us over the head with her points. Radha’s passion comes out in her rap, guided by the intrigued guy who makes her beats. He does not take to her because she is an amazing rapper; he takes to her because she is an interesting person with something to say, unlike most of the people who come into his studio.
Her frustrations, both life and career, come out in her conversations with Archie. Blank and Peter Y. Kim have an easy chemistry. Radha and Archie have known each other forever and will never quit on each other, even when he asks her to go against her beliefs or he has to bend over backwards to connect her with Whitman. Kim shows a real concern and care that adds welcome depth to the usual client/manager relationship.
That is offset by her scenes with J. Whitman, who is not shy in explaining to her how she can make her story more “real.” Reed Birney is suitably obnoxious in the role of a guy who has a very precise idea of what successful looks like. This is complicated by the fact that he could be right. To get her play on Broadway, where the audience tends to be older, rich, white folks, she probably has to appeal to them. That means adding a white protagonist and possibly turning it into a gritty urban tragedy, even if that is absolutely not the story she wanted to tell.
It has been said that the more someone tries to create a story for everyone, the harder it is for people to connect with it. Whereas the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes. That is certainly true here. The Forty-Year-Old Version may be Radha Blank’s story, but there is so much honesty in the way it looks at this woman’s life that it speaks just as much to anyone who has felt like they have wasted their potential or compromised their personal integrity to get ahead. While Radha the character struggles to have her voice heard, Radha Blank the filmmaker comes across loud and clear. She is very confident in her acting/writing/directing. This is definitely a person who didn’t need anyone to explain to her how to tell this story.
4¼ out of 5
Radha Blank as Radha
Peter Y. Kim as Archie
Oswin Benjamin as D
Reed Birney as Josh Whitman
Imani Lewis as Elaine
Haskiri Velazquez as Rosa
Written and Directed by Radha Blank