“You know women-of-colour productions are very hot right now,” coos wealthy, white arts patron Josh Whitman (Reed Birney) to Radha Blank at a ritzy party. A struggling playwright who was once on ‘30 under 30’ lists but is now pushing 40, she politely smiles at his insipid observation, but ends up throttling him about a minute later.
Although Black American culture – or, crucially, some version of it – is omnipresent, and has set the standard of coolness the world over at least since Scott Joplin wrote The Entertainer, the focus on Black Americans is currently at an all-time high because of a larger and possibly day-late-and-a-dollar-short reckoning now taking place in the United States.
This desire for Black stories and a deeper understanding of the Black experience is a double-edged sword. By itself, it does not challenge firmly ensconced white gatekeepers, and it’s clear what the virulent, resolute backlash to this attention looks like.
The role of white cultural gatekeepers, and how easily a story by a Black artist can be bent into something that reaffirms their pre-existing ideas about Blackness and their own place as mediators, is but one thread Radha Blank explores with genuine humour in The Forty-Year-Old Version.
This is a highly personal story about being torn between ‘making it’, selling out, and forging a path as an MC. And there’s more than a hint of the metatextual here: Blank attended the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters and Directors Labs, institutions notorious for applying a certain structure, emotional tenor and characters (which affluent, white liberal audiences like) to the films that pass through. Blank hits a lot of those patented beats, but it is not to the film’s detriment: her presence, direction and sensibility are enjoyable and exude a refreshing authenticity, balancing a sense of distance with the deeply personal material.
Blank introduces Radha running late to her job at a high school and expressing exasperation at the number of elderly or disabled people at subsequent bus stops on her route (which will make her even later). Her attitude to her fellow passengers is ironically echoed by the dismissiveness she encounters from people ostensibly on her side, such as her longtime friend and agent Archie (Peter Y. Kim), and her beatmaker, D (Oswin Benjamin).
This mistreatment – alternately comic and enraging – by her friends is only exceeded by that from people who are just looking out for themselves, such as Josh, who after Radha’s assault on him chooses to produce her play Harlem Avenue rather than press charges.
Radha cannot achieve her creative goals alone, which is partly why she hasn’t lived up to the promise of her youth; but she also can’t get productive help in the existing structures, economic and otherwise, of the world of Off-Broadway plays – a space that has been colonised by the sort of bald commercialism and safe narratives it originally opposed. (There’s a running joke in the film about musicals made out of the lives of Black women trailblazers – Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and Shirley Chisholm. The joke is so painfully dead-on that, after the success of the film at Sundance, Blank was offered a writing gig on a similar musical.)
Even though the world of New York City hip-hop seems like a less welcoming place for a woman of her age, Radha discovers true creative freedom and collaboration there. Blank makes this feel absolutely earned and naturalistic, just like her budding romance with D, who is both younger and calmer than she is.
Shot in black and white 35mm, The Forty-Year-Old Version paints a loving portrait of parts of New York City that aren’t represented with such care, if at all, in narrative films of this scale. Blank’s achievement makes a convincing case for a new list category: ‘40 in their 40s’.
Originally published: 9 October 2020