40-Year-Old Version is a feature debut film written, directed, and produced by Radha Blank and is streaming now on Netflix. Produced by Lena Waithe and others, the film stars Radha Blank as Radha, Peter Kim as Archie, Oswin Benjamin as D, Andre Ward as Forrest and Reed Birney as J. Whitman. This story is based on the writer’s real-life experiences. Radha, who is approaching 40, finds herself struggling with identity, coping with her mother’s loss, unsure of her current job situation as a playwright, and squabbling with her students in the afterschool theater program. Radha Blank’s screenplay speaks about the trials of becoming and being a 40-something black woman in America (specifically in NYC).
Radha looks at her 30 under 30 playwright award as a relic of her glory days. She’s always drinking diet sodas, so she can lose weight and constantly wearing a headwrap. However, she breaks free of the cloth wrap as time goes by. This also adds as one of the metaphors for “change” in the film.
One morning, Radha goes to the Umojaa Theater to ask the owner, named Forrest, for a regional opportunity with her play, “Harlem Ave,” instead of making it a community workshop. Her knees crackle as Forrest urges her to sit next to him at the ancestral altar. He explains that the ancestors have spoken and told him that “he has been imbued for the spirit of the cause and not for currency or commerce.” She asks that he “speak again” to the ancestors and requests that they reconsider to pay her rent.
Archie, her gay, Korean best friend, will stop at nothing to support her. However, he’s skeptical of her sudden career switch to rap and suggests she should stick to playwriting regardless of the struggle. He also urges that Mr. Whitman (a white investor, producer) might still be interested in her play, even though she tried to “choke him out” at an afterparty. Mr. Whitman alleges that Radha’s writing is somewhat unauthentic and needs work. She becomes enraged because he states that Harlem Ave. should be more gritty and include white audiences while explaining gentrification. (What Radha calls “poverty porn”).
Radha has an epiphany moment after riding home on the train. She sees a “white man with a black woman’s butt” twice in one day and suggests to Archie that this is a sign that she must pursue her rap dream. Eventually, she connects with a young 20-something DJ called “D” in Brooklyn, who creates beats for her lyrics and gives her strength to develop her voice as an artist. She names herself “Radhamus Prime” (the rapper).
The afterschool kids she teaches are rambunctious yet curious about their teacher’s career. “Ms. B” (Radha) helps them realize their dreams and grapple with egos in class and provide encouragement for their work. In the program, “Ms. B” is relentless about reaching her students. She eventually finds the kids’ support and learns a lesson or two along the way about mending relationships, beginning new ones, and exploring and pushing boundaries. Radha, aka “Ms. B,” leads by example with having an opportunity to produce the “Harlem Ave” play, but what will she do in the end? Will she continue to rap or continue writing plays? Can she do both or choose? Is she a sell-out?
The film is shot in black and white except for the imagination/dream sequences, demonstrating the metaphor of dreaming in color. Choosing black and white allows the audience to focus on the story without distractions. Classic scenes in the film include Radha’s aerial character perspective looking down at her homeless neighbor from her window and the close-ups of the facial expressions of the characters and the close-ups of white men’s butts.
Radha’s witty repartee and intriguing story challenge the audience on issues of minority perspectives, stereotypes, gentrification, black women entrepreneurship, and connections to relationships and the community. She gives a commanding performance and paints a vivid picture of a woman’s life approaching an important milestone. She embodies the entrepreneurial spirit, carries with her the ancestors’ courage and hope, and the energy and nostalgia of Hip Hop culture.
Radha Blank has a strong voice and a great story. Her character struggles to use her voice to impact the community without being a sell-out. The 40-Year-Old Version was refreshing and bold, with raw and relatable characters. Radha is a genius with the lyrics, incredible rhyme skills, excellent timing, and pace of delivery of dialogue. Her black woman, melanin tears, counted for something in this tale and acknowledged producing something real and prolific.
I give 40-Year-Old Version 4.5 stars out of 5.
Contributing Writer, Okema Gunn is a filmmaker and educator. Find her on social media @7gunnmedia.