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This weekend we’re watching: Being big, black, brilliant and 40

By Tevya Turok Shapiro 16 October 2020

Radha Blank appears in the Forty-Year-Old Version, an official selection of the US Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Eric Branco.

The Forty-Year-Old Version is a new black-and-white, Sundance award-winning film with about a thousand edgy things to say about blackness, hip-hop, selling out and getting old.

The Forty-Year-Old Version

Nope, that’s not a typo – nobody is suggesting you go back and watch Steve Carell’s 2005 American sex comedy. It might actually be a good selling point that The Forty-Year-Old Version is everything that The 40-Year-Old Virgin is not.

The Forty-Year-Old Version is written, directed, produced and starred by Radha Blank. It’s even loosely autobiographical – the character she plays is a playwright who tries to break into hip-hop, also called Radha. The film is Radha Blank. She’s poured her essence into the script and distilled into a relatable yet distinctive story, told with style and spunk. It aired at Sundance earlier this year, where it won Blank the US Dramatic Competition Directing Award; now it has just been released on Netflix.

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The Forty-Year-Old Version is a hoot – the humour and social commentary are razor-sharp, but the comedy at the start of Radha’s tale is pretty smothered by pity, as she tosses and turns restlessly in a dark apartment. This agitation is a defining feature of her life – the frustration of waiting and waiting to find rest, to catch a break – but the more you try to take it easy, the harder it gets. It’s an age-old struggle shared by billions around the world, the people who can only get themselves out of bed in the morning by brooding on the hope that maybe today will be the day that everything starts getting better.

She flicks through television channels with all the enthusiasm of a school kid doing math homework in detention. This is her life. Radha is a washed-up playwright on the brink of a midlife crisis. Forty.

“When a single woman turns 40 she’s like a fruit that falls to the ground for the bugs to eat.”

Having found herself at a dead-end in her career, she runs an after-school theatre class for a rowdy group of teenagers of colour who have no respect for her, nor experience or interest in theatre.

On the precipice of an existential change in her life, the tolerant, patient, submissive person she forces herself to be is so sick of struggling and settling and “kissing white ass” that she’s barely restraining her sassy, outspoken brilliance. And then one day she just can’t anymore. She snaps. Boom – rock-bottom, home alone crying into a pillow for mommy.

But her sadness gives way to fire and rage. Something moves her to stare at the mirror and rap. She transcends her breakdown and starts breaking it down. She vents, she fumes, she practically explodes with the fury of her daily battle to get by as a forty year old black woman. And then, shock – she’s good, she’s really good, and it works!

“Boots and cats and boots and cats”. That’s what you say when you start learning to beat-box. It ain’t much, but it’s all a rapper needs to start dropping bars and busting rhymes. Anyone could do it if they wanted to. At the core of The Forty-Year-Old Version is the wisdom that it’s never too late to start doing what you love, and not only because you believe you can make it, but because if you’re not doing what you love then what are you doing?

As the film goes on, you hear a lot more than boots and cats. The score becomes more and more playful and leans into a vibey, jazzy, hip-hop attitude. Radha’s sudden career change represents a simultaneous critique of the commercialised materialism which characterises much modern popular hip-hop, and the selling out of black narratives.

Radha cannot help confront assumptions about blackness. In her life as a playwright, she uses the term “poverty porn” to describe the tendency of producers to dismiss black stories as inauthentic if they aren’t seeping with sex and violence. In her life as hip-hop artist RadhaMUS Prime (which is genuinely Radha Blank’s stage name) she condemns factionalism within the black community based on superficial social constructs, and challenges the notion of cool.

The film manages to tackle an alarming number of concepts and social issues, but Blank’s intention to write it that way may have clouded her judgment of the film as a single entity. One of its few faults is a superfluous additional rock-bottom plot point in the middle of the film, which drags a little and could easily have been edited out.

She does also occasionally slip slightly into her personal fantasies, a temptation which is often succumbed to in semi-autobiographical films. But those moments are tender and magical, and for the most part, she keeps it real.

Inspired by the likes of Woody Allen and Spike Lee, the whole thing is shot with black and white film, exposing stark contrasting images that stick in your mind, and cultivating the dreamy bustling atmosphere of the gritty New York streets. Things do feel a little visually dark at times, but this is offset by charismatic high-energy characters.

Unlike her fictional counterpart, the real Radha Blank could not have been called a struggling playwright, having written for several successful television series including She’s Gotta Have It and Empire, but The Forty-Year-Old Version was her directorial debut, and it brought her fully into the spotlight. Having veritably bared her soul, it’s hard to imagine how she might top herself in the future, but it would be a darn shame if she remains a one-hit wonder. Now we’ve seen her chops, so to speak. She is a cinematic chameleon, able to handle just about any role in the filmmaking process, or all of them. Here’s to hoping we see more of her and more like her in the future. DM/ ML

The Forty-Year-Old Version is available on Netflix. You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]

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