[Review] ‘FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION,’ an incisive showcase for Radha Blank and artists in general



Travis Leamons // Film Critic

Rated R, 129 minutes. 
Director: Radha Blank
Cast: Radha Blank, Peter Y. Kim, Oswin Benjamin, Reed Birney, Haskiri Velazquez, Imani Lewis, Antonio Ortiz, T.J. Atoms, and Jacob Ming-Trent

Success can be a blessing or a burden. An accomplishment early brings with it the pressures of trying to keep it going. Set bigger goals to see success grow. For those who are late bloomers, however, a delayed achievement can be a sign of progress. Still, the measure of success varies significantly on the individual, particularly those who are artists.

Regardless of the canvas, an artist begins doing a painting or manuscript out of love and for himself. Where complications arise is when the art is shared with the world. Is he still making art, or is free enterprise dictating what will become? We’ve seen countless times where a beloved artist is paid handsomely and sees his small fanbase grow exponentially. It even has a phrase: selling out. 

Complications from early success and losing focus in your craft is what drives Radha Blank’s semi-autobiographical THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION. For which Blank writes, produces, directs, and stars, this deeply personal feature won the Directing Prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Richly deserving and very impressive considering this is Blank’s debut feature. It is slice-of-life New York photographed in black-and-white 35mm, recalling the likes of Spike Lee’s SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT. From its opening scene with Radha in her apartment – where she stares into a mirror as the camera pans over to a “30 Under 30” trophy acknowledging her playwriting work before she slumps across her bed in the shot following – we already have a sense of her current circumstances. 

Once promising, now down-on-her-luck and about to turn forty, Radha is desperate to make her mark. She teaches theater class to a group of students after school as she tries to get her play into production at a local Black theater company. Knowing neither will get her where she wants to be, Radha pesters her high school BFF and agent Archie (Peter Y. Kim) to get her work to a more prominent New York producer and ensure a better production. The prospective producer is J. Whitman (Reed Birney), a stodgy and moneyed man of Manhattan’s theater scene. He promises to produce her play, HARLEM AVE., if she’ll refine it to be more about the gentrification of the neighborhood. Whitman also requests Radha write a Harriet Tubman musical he’s eyeing to produce.         

For Radha, it’s a tangible opportunity worth considering. She’ll be back in the spotlight; her work performed in front of a large audience of theatergoers. But it is the intangible side effects of making concessions and compromising her vision to a caucasian male theater producer that leaves her vexed. 

A cocktail scene with Radha and Archie visiting Whitman and other New York theater yuppies is satirical in its glibness. Radha dispassionately tells Archie that Whitman is only interested in “poverty porn” theatrical plays to appease a mostly white audience as he showcases the work of black creators. Accuracy of the black experience is inconsequential.     

Black art for white folks is a slippery slope that Radha is unwilling to go down, but the cocktail party leads to an artistic awakening. A wellspring of words and rhymes spill out of a depressed Radha as she begins to rap in front of the same mirror where her playwriting trophy sits. This creative spark incites a resurgence that is aided by D (Oswin Benjamin), a music producer who lays down the beats to which Radha tracks as the oldest MC in the neighborhood, “RadhaMUSprime.”  

THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION hits on what it means to be successful as an artist, reinvention and self-expression as a mixed blessing, and how satisfaction is attainable from within, not outside oneself. As we follow Radha between the worlds of hip hop and theater trying to find her voice (contrarian or conciliatory?), the film takes shape as a tale aimed at underachievers who have not yet made their mark, showing there’s still time.

Radha Blank’s film never sinks to sentimental territory, but she does show the effect of what happens when an artist’s vision becomes compromised. Funny and incisive, her debut is a self-reflective ode to making art happen regardless of age, class, or creed. Blank puts everything out there, including herself, telling the world: This is me. This is my voice. This is my vision. And forty years old never looked so good.  

Grade: A-

Now available to stream on Netflix.

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