Review: ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version,’ starring Radha Blank

January 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Radha Blank in “The Forty-Year-Old Version” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Forty-Year-Old Version”

Directed by Radha Blank

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedic film “The Forty-Year-Old Version” features a racially diverse cast (African American, white, Latino and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A struggling African American playwright decides to reinvent herself as a rapper a few months before her 40th birthday, and she has to come to terms with her definition of “success” versus “selling out,” as she deals with racism and sexism.

Culture Audience: “The Forty-Year-Old Version” will appeal primarily to people interested in stories of self-identity from an African American perspective.

Reed Birney and Radha Blank in “The Forty-Year-Old Version” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a comedic film that skillfully shows a mid-life crisis that has never before been portrayed on screen: Just a few months before she turns 40 years old, a struggling New York City playwright, who’s looking for a new way to express her creativity, decides that she wants to become a rapper. It’s a career move that’s risky and outside her comfort zone not only because hip-hop isn’t generally welcoming of female rappers but it’s a music genre that also has incredibly difficult barriers for beginner rappers who are over the age of 30. Radha Blank makes a captivating feature-film debut as the star, writer, director and one of the producers of “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” a semi-autobiographical movie that strikes the right balance of showing uncomfortable truths with whimsically raw comedy.

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is entirely in black and white, which gives the movie a somewhat timeless look. This creative choice might also draw comparisons to filmmaker Spike Lee’s 1986 feature-film debut “She’s Gotta Have It,” which was also entirely in black and white. Both movies are comedies with an independent-minded woman as the main character. And although the overall tone is comedic, both movies also have underlying serious social commentary about how relationships are affected by gender roles and race.

In “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” Blank portrays a playwright named Radha, who is about to turn 40 in a few months, and she feels like her life is imploding. She’s grieving over the death of her beloved widowed mother. Radha is also having financial problems and is trying not to get depressed that she hasn’t lived up to her expected potential.

Years ago, Radha received a “30 Under 30” prize by an influential theater organization, to signify that she was considered a promising playwright under the age of 30. And now, all these years later, Radha can’t even get a workshop of her latest play. To pay her bills, Radha teaches an after-school class on dramatic writing at a local high school. But even in that job, she’s not appreciated, because some of the teenage students in her small class (which has eight students) don’t really want to be in her class and show little to no interest in theater.

Radha’s latest play that she’s hoping to get produced is called “Harlem Ave,” which is set in New York City’s predominantly black neighborhood of Harlem. She describes the play as being about “a young man who inherited a grocery store from his parents and struggles to keep the business afloat with an activist wife.” Radha wants the play to be reflective of the real Harlem, by having a predominantly black cast.

In the hopes of getting “Harlem Ave” in regional theater, Radha meets with a pretentious acquaintance named Forrest Umoja Petry (played by Andre Ward), who owns the local OUmoja Theatre, an off-Broadway venue whose specialty is African American stage productions. Forrest, who founded the theater in 1988, doesn’t really take Radha that seriously. Instead of discussing the play with Radha, he makes her meditate with him in his office that he likes to fill with burning incense.

Radha’s best friend Archie (played by Peter Kim), an openly gay Korean American, is an aspiring theater producer. It’s later revealed in the movie that Radha and Archie have been best friends since high school. They were each other’s prom dates back then, when Archie was still closeted to most people and afraid to tell his family about his sexuality. Archie is staunchly loyal to Radha, but he disagrees with her “I’ll never sell out” mindset when it comes to getting her plays financed. Radha wants to be a success, but only on her terms.

Archie excitedly tells Radha that he’s scored an invitation to a black-tie party that will be attended by a powerful, Tony-winning producer named J. Whitman (played by Reed Birney), who could be a likely investor in “Harlem Ave.” Archie wants Radha to be his “plus one” at the party, which Archie thinks will be the perfect opportunity for Radha to pitch her play to Whitman. Radha is very reluctant to go to this party and tells Archie: “J. Whitman only does black ‘poverty porn’ plays. I’d rather do a workshop with Forrest and his stinky-ass ancestors than suck up to J. Whitman!”

But after some pleading from Archie, Radha eventually agrees to go to the party. The soiree is upscale and filled with a lot of well-to-do “theater patron” types, who are usually over the age of 60. It’s the type of party where Archie and Radha stand out because they’re relatively young by comparison, and they’re two of the few non-white people at the party.

Sure enough, Radha gets a chance to talk to Whitman, so she tells him about “Harlem Ave.” Whitman says he would be interested in investing, but he thinks the play should be about “gentrification.” It’s really code for saying, “There needs to be white people as main characters in the play, in order to sell it to a predominantly white audience.”

Radha thinks it’s demeaning for Whitman to suggest that she change her play in this way, but she doesn’t say it out loud to Whitman. Instead, she politely tells him that she doesn’t want to change to focus of her play. She’s ready to end the conversation, but a tone-deaf Whitman adds insult to injury and tells Radha: “I still need a writer for my Harriet Tubman musical.”

This racial condescension enrages Radha, who then lunges at Whitman and begins strangling him. It’s played for laughs in the movie, but the scene demonstrates how infuriating people like Whitman can be, because they think of themselves as “open-minded liberals” but they believe in the same racist stereotypes as close-minded conservatives. Radha is unapologetic for her outburst, but Archie is horrified. Archie tells Radha that he wants to smooth things over with Whitman, but Radha tells Archie not to bother.

Publicly, Radha is defiant. Privately, she’s wracked with self-doubt. In her small and dumpy apartment where she lives alone, she cries in despair and wails: “I just want to be an artist! Mommy, tell me what to do!”

Just then, Radha hears rap music playing nearby. She has a silent “a-ha” moment and suddenly feels inspired to write rap lyrics. The next day, Radha tells Archie that she’s going to try something new with her life: She wants to make a rap mixtape and see where it’ll take her in a possible career as a rapper.

Archie is incredulous and thinks Radha shouldn’t give up her career in theater. But Radha has already made up her mind. Whitman has decided to forgive Radha for physically attacking him, but he tells Archie that he should be a theater producer and that Archie shouldn’t be wasting his time with Radha, whom Whitman calls a “washed-up writer.”

Radha hears about a home recording studio in Brooklyn that works with aspiring rappers, so she goes there to see if she can find a producer who can make the music for her lyrics. When she goes to the cramped, smoke-filled apartment, she’s the only female in a roomful of guys in their 20s. A sullen-looking 26-year-old, who goes by the name D (played by Oswin Benjamin), is the producer/engineer operating the recording equipment. He barely acknowledges Radha in this first meeting.

The entire meeting is awkward because it’s obvious that these guys don’t take Radha seriously. When one of them asks Radha what her rap name is, she’s taken aback and makes up a name on the spot: RadhaMUSPrime. It’s a play on words of the “Transformers” robot hero character Optimus Prime.

Radha has the money to pay for a recording session. D seems reluctant to work with her though, because it’s obvious that he thinks she’s a joke. That is, until Radha starts rapping her song “Poverty Porn,” a scathing rebuke of greedy people who make money in entertainment by exploiting African American poverty. When D sees her perform and hears the lyrics, he shows signs of being impressed with Radha’s talent.

“Poverty Porn” is told from the point of view of the exploiter who would rather make entertainment showing African Americans as poor and down-trodden instead of showing the reality that most African Americans are not poor but are middle-class. The lyrics of the chorus include: “You regular blacks are just such a yawn. Yo, if I want to get on, better make me some poverty porn.”

Radha’s experience with Whitman is the obvious inspiration for “Poverty Porn,” but the lyrics suggest that Radha has had a lifetime of these racist experiences in trying to be a successful playwright. Later in the story, Whitman lets it be known that he still wants to be the lead producer of “Harlem Ave,” but only if Radha makes the changes that he wants. The offer comes when Radha is at a low point in her confidence and financial stability, so she has to make a choice on whether or not she will “sell out” and do the play with Whitman in charge.

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” also has a subplot about two of Radha’s students who clash with each other almost every time that they’re in class together: a tough-talking butch lesbian named Rosa (played by Haskiri Velazquez) and a foul-mouthed diva named Elaine (played by Imani Lewis), who is sought-after by many of the boys in the school. Rosa has a crush on Radha and doesn’t try to hide it. For example, Rosa makes gushing comments about Radha such as, “She’s like Queen Latifah and Judge Judy rolled into one!”

Meanwhile, Elaine is often disrespectful to Radha and acts like being in Radha’s class is a waste of time. One day, Elaine insults Radha by calling her a failed playwright. Rosa jumps to Radha’s defense and gets in a brawl with Elaine. Rosa and Elaine are both punished by the school, but the two teens still act like enemies when they’re together in the classroom. Much later, Radha sees something in the school hallway which explains why Elaine is acting the way that she does.

As Radha spends more time with D to write and record her rap songs, she and D become closer, even though their personalities are almost polar opposites. Radha is talkative and high-strung. D is quiet and laid-back. There’s also their age difference and the fact that they have very different social circles.

Even though Radha is trying to be a rapper, she comes from the intellectual theater world, while D has more of a “street life” background. Both Radha and D have a strong sense of identity as African Americans, but their respective upbringings and educations have taken them on different paths. Their relationship is a situation where hip-hop really did bring them together.

Much of the absurdist comic relief in the story comes from recurring appearances of neighbors as a sort of “Greek chorus” who make funny and sometimes rude remarks separately to the camera, as if they’re speaking to or about Radha. These outspoken neighbors are an elderly African American woman (played by Jackie Adam), who’s called Snazzy in the film’s credits; a young Dominican woman (played by Cristina Gonzalez); an elderly Korean vendor (played Charles Ryu); and two of Radha’s students named Waldo (played by Antonio Ortiz) and Kamal (played by T.J. Atoms). When they’re asked what they think of Radha turning 40, the young woman replies, “When a single woman turns 40, she’s like fruit in the ground for the bugs to eat.”

There’s also a scene-stealing homeless man named Lamont (played by Jacob Ming-Trent), who hangs out near Radha’s apartment building and lets her know that he watches all the comings and goings that happen to and from her home. During a pivotal conversation that Radha has on the street when she asks someone for help with her career, Lamont who’s watching nearby shouts: “Give the bitch a chance! Her desperation is making me nauseous! Although technically, you’ve got to eat something to throw up.”

Because “The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a low-budget film, it’s fairly obvious that many of the cast members are not professional actors. Some of the cast members deliver their lines better than those whose acting is a little rough around the edges. But that’s part of the movie’s charm, since it looks like many of the people in the movie are really playing versions of themselves and aren’t doing a slick acting job. Of the main cast members, Blank and Kim fare the best in scenes that show the genuine and sometimes volatile friendship between Radha and Archie.

One of the best things about “The Forty-Year-Old” version is how it authentically reveals layers to the story without making it too cluttered. Viewers will get poignant glimpses into Radha’s family life and how her mother’s death affected her. Radha’s brother Ravi (played by Blank’s real-life brother Ravi Blank) wants her to help him decide what to do with their mother’s possessions, but Radha has been avoiding his phone calls. When the siblings eventually meet up, they have a heart-to-heart conversation that’s a standout scene in the movie.

It’s revealed in the story that Radha and Ravi’s parents were both artists but had to take day jobs to support the family. The siblings’ mother was a painter who worked as a teacher, while their father was a jazz drummer who worked as a plumber. Radha is single with no children, so she doesn’t have the family financial obligations that her parents had. However, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” shows that one of her underlying fears is not being able to fulfill her dream of becoming a professional and respected artist.

At an age when most people are settled down and secure in their careers, Radha is restless and insecure in her chosen profession. What makes this story stand out is how she takes a bold risk to “blow it all up” to start over in hip-hop, which is a male-dominated and often-misogynistic industry. It’s a risk that most women in the same circumstances would never take. But “The Forty-Year-Old Version” accurately shows what happens when artists follow their instincts, despite any massive obstacles and naysayers in their way.

Thanks to her tour-de-force work in front of and behind the camera, Blank makes “The Forty-Year-Old Version” a truly unique gem of a film that feels very personal yet relatable to anyone who knows what it’s like to be underestimated or discriminated against simply because of race, gender or other physical characteristics. There are plenty of examples of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination in the film.

However, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” isn’t too heavy-handed about showing this bigotry, and Radha isn’t wallowing in a self-pity party. She just gets on with what she has to do. But there are also moments when Radha has to decide if she should listen to “rational” advice or follow what’s in her heart.

And any decision to go against the grain and listen to her inner voice requires her to be extremely vulnerable when it would be much easier to go along with what she’s pressured to do by other people. There’s a telling moment in the movie where Radha, who usually wears a head wrap that completely covers her hair, decides to take off this head wrap, and it’s symbolic of her shedding a self-protective shell and showing her true self.

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is also an incisive commentary on artistic integrity and how it’s often at odds with financial offers that artists can get. At some point, artists who expect to be paid for their work must ask themselves: “Is this monetary offer in line with my values? If it isn’t, is it worth compromising my integrity for what I would be paid? And how much control of my work do I want to give to other people?”

The music of “The 40-Year-Old Version” is a mixture of mostly hip-hop and jazz, which perfectly exemplify the two artistic worlds that Radha inhabits in the story: the rough, street-oriented world of rap and the more refined, traditional world of theater. In addition to “Poverty Porn,” original songs with Blank’s lyrics include “This Is 40,” “F.Y.O.V.,” “Mamma May I,” “”Pound Da Poundcakes” and “WMWBWB,” which stands for “White Man With a Black Woman’s Butt,” a reference to a scene in a movie when Radha sees a white man with a very round and large bottom.

Other songs that are part of “The Forty-Year-Old Version” soundtrack include Queen Latifah’s “Wrath of My Madness,” Babs Bunny’s “I Want In,” Nai Br.XX’s “Adventure Time,” Quincy Jones’ “Love and Peace” and several tunes from jazz artist Courtney Bryan. Radha says in the movie that her song “F.Y.OV.” can stand for things other than “Forty-Year-Old Version,” such as “Find Your Own Voice,” “Find Your Own Vision” or “Fill Your Own Void.” They are all perfect descriptions of the movie’s overall impactful message.

Netflix premiered “The Forty-Year-Old Version” on October 9, 2020.