Radha Blank wrote, directed, and stars in THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION (2020), a Hillman Grad Production (Lena Waithe’s company) that premiered on Netflix last October. On its face, the film seems like a simple tale of a home girl trying to make good before she turns 40. But Blank’s authentic, layered telling of the life of a no-longer-youthful creative forced to adapt her plays for what author Toni Morrison termed ‘The White Gaze’ is anything but simple.
THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION, shot in glorious black and white, won the directing competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and was immediately snapped up by Netflix. While that has the sound of an overnight success story, it is anything but. The script was years in the making. Blank’s early writing success was followed by repeat rejections. Then came the death of her mother, her number one fan. As Blank said in Alexis Soloski’s New York Timesreview of the film, “I really literally have put everything in there.”
Blank’s film is relentless on the silliness of White (and even Black) gatekeepers who have biased ideas of what Black society, dialogue, and concerns truly are. FORTY not only skewers those biases, but also tackles ageism, starting with a hysterical opening montage of her kooky neighbors in Upper Harlem. And lastly, it’s a love story, a touchingly romantic one, in which Blank finds solace from her mother’s death, the true North for her dream of creating, and the bonus of a creative passion to match hers.
As the film opens, Blank is teaching playwriting to high school students. When one of them calls her out on her stalled career, it pushes her to get play produced. Believing she’s failed to make that happen, she reinvents herself as a rapper named RadhaMUSPrime. As that rapper name indicates, there are some truly funny screen moments in this film; Blank’s knees cracking as she prays to her immediate ancestors, her rap inspired by a white man’s butt, and her violent reaction to a play called Harriet Tubman, the Musical.
Radha Blank isn’t just a talented screenwriter. She is an assured director. Her use of 35 mm black and white imbues the film with an intimate feel. The scene in her agent/best friend Archie’s apartment after the Harriett Tubman musical incident is shot through a doorframe using natural light. The camera looks at the actors at an angle. It feels as if we are eavesdropping on them, as Archie and Blank, in their pajamas, quietly talk about their messed-up situations.
The film is rounded out by a solid supporting cast, led by Peter Kim as her agent Archie and Oswin Benjamin as her beatmaker “D”. Also watch for key performances by Imani Lewis as the smart-mouthed, but talented Elaine (EIGHTH GRADE, 2018), and Haskiri Velazquez as the totally besotted Rosa (SAVED BY THE BELL, 2020), and one uncredited character, New York City itself. While the film could use some editing to make it flow faster in some parts, it’s a minor issue that probably stems from Blank being too close to the material.
Any film that starts with A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” and a rapper with a name pulled from the TRANSFORMERS must have a soundtrack that is a throw back to the hip hop beats of the ‘90s. The score crafted by music director Guy Routte doesn’t disappoint and gives us the bonus of Quincy Jones’ “Love and Peace”. That 90’s hip-hop vibe is expertly woven around the newer sounding beats created by Blank’s mixtape producer in the film “D”. Radha Blank is a Black, middle-aged, woman and a gifted film director.