by Alissa Wilkinson, Vox
Watch The Forty-Year-Old Version if you want to laugh, but with an edge
Radha Blank knows what she’s talking about. The playwright’s intimate knowledge of the elite theater world — very white, very male, very, uh, clueless — comes naturally. She’s talked freely of the trials that come with being a Black playwright, whose work doesn’t fit producers’ preferred mold and who doesn’t want to write about slavery or make “poverty porn.”
She funneled her frustrations (and a huge amount of humor and heart) into The Forty-Year-Old Version, which several times made me laugh harder than I have during a movie in a long while. (My favorite joke comes early on, when two older white women earnestly enthuse about investing in a “multiethnic revival of Fences.”)
Blank wrote and directed the film, in which she also stars as a frustrated playwright and Harlem high-school teacher named Radha, who’s rounding the corner on 40. She was the toast of the theater town for a while, earning a spot on a “30 under 30” list, but that was a minute ago, and now she feels stuck. She likes the play she’s written about a couple living in Harlem, but to get it produced she’ll have to change it to align with a prominent white producer’s ideas about what a play should be — and her exasperations drive her to a (hilarious) breaking point that seems to scuttle her future chances of ever getting a play on stage again. Bereft, but exhilarated, she has an epiphany: She’s going to try becoming a hip-hop performer instead.
Blank shot The Forty-Year-Old Version in black and white, which calls to mind classic films about New York from directors like Spike Lee (and, of course, Woody Allen). But she also uses a few techniques — like inserting small scenes with man-on-the-street-style interviews with her character’s neighbors into the main flow of the story — that seem drawn from other pioneering filmmakers, such as Cheryl Dunye. (In Dunye’s 1996 indie The Watermelon Woman, Dunye herself plays the protagonist, a young Philadelphia filmmaker named Cheryl who’s struggling to make work and understand her future; the parallels are certainly there.)
In any case, Blank killed it. The Forty-Year-Old Version is pointed, satirical, and sharp as a rapier, and it hits every beat perfectly. No wonder Blank took home the directing award at Sundance; this film is a stunner of a debut. I loved it, and I can’t wait to see what Blank does next.
How to watch it: The Forty-Year-Old Version is in select theaters this weekend. It hits Netflix on October 9.
Director of Photography: Eric Branco