In Radha Blank’s semi-autobiographical comedy, the quadruple-threat plays “Rahda Blank,” a Harlem-based playwright who faces many of the same struggles and setbacks as her creator.
It’s been more than a decade since Radha (as we’ll call the character) earned a promising “30 Under 30” award, and now, instead of getting her work produced, she’s teaching drama to half a dozen high school students. Tastemakers are constantly looking for the hot new thing, but all these years later, where they once spotted potential, her momentum appears to have stalled. In her frustration, Radha starts to rhyme, and the resulting raps are more honest than what she’d been writing for the stage. Her question: Is the world ready for “The 40-Year-Old Version”?
Judging by writer-director Blank’s mic-drop debut, the answer’s most assuredly affirmative. It’s affirmational, too, but not in a watered-down or obsequious kind of way. Shot in expressionistic black and white, like earlier indies “She’s Gotta Have It” or “Go Fish,” Blank’s first feature is an earnest, honest, often hilarious testimonial from a gifted writer (the Off Broadway play “Seed” earned her a shot at working with Spike Lee) about what it means for someone in her position to reinvent. The gestation may have been long, but hallelujah, a star is born!
Maybe “the moment” — an industry-wide reassessment, by which #OscarsSoWhite begat @StrongBlackLead and other overdue opportunities for creators of color — is making things just a little bit easier for underrepresented voices to break through barriers of racism and sexism, but that’s not necessarily Blank’s point. You have to locate your own courage before you can encourage others, and “The 40-Year-Old Version” reminds that sometimes we can be our own greatest obstacle. And besides, to get her film funded, Blank still had to go around the system (partnering with producer Lena Waithe), so get with it, Hollywood.
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The daughter of an artistic mother, raised in a neighborhood the Clintons now call home, Blank has been around long enough to see what New York’s legit theater scene expects when it comes to African American stories. In the film, her character earned some acclaim bending to the whims of men, like Broadway theater manager Josh Whitman (Reed Birney, charmingly smarmy) and her agent/gay bff Archie (Peter Y. Kim, after Blank, the film’s second-funniest asset). Still, there’s a reason they call it “the Great White Way.” The rich old patrons expect a certain kind of experience, and the pressure to sell out is enormous.
Amid such temptation, Radha’s reminded of what motivated her back in high school: beating out beats on the cafeteria table, rhyming, rapping. In an uncharacteristic (for her) burst of self-confidence, Radha reaches out to a Brownsville DJ named D (Oswin Benjamin, a stoned sage who becomes one of her first believers) about producing her mix tape. The first track she records, “Poverty Porn,” brilliantly distills so many of the clichés that white gatekeepers — especially those who think of themselves as “woke” — expect to see in the art they’re enabling: “No happy blacks in the plotlines, please / but a crane shot of Big Momma crying on her knees / for her dead son, the b-ball star, who almost made it out. / Sounds f—ed up enough to gain my film some capital.”
After Radha, aka “RadhaMUSprime” (like the Autobot leader), is humiliated at an open-mic night, Archie advises her to pull her latest play, “Harlem Ave.,” out of an underfunded, patchouli-scented black theater space and pitch it to Whitman instead. Any time Radha finds herself asking others for an opportunity, we can’t help wincing, hearing the timidity that creeps into her voice — that deferential second language women learn from a young age, to appease the men in power.
In those scenes and countless others, Blank uses comedy to convey what words alone can’t. As a performer, her timing is impeccable, earning extra laughs through body language and facial expressions that show she could have quite the acting career ahead of her. Meanwhile, as a writer, she recognizes that laughter is the spoonful of sugar audiences need to swallow the political subtext. Whether Radha makes it as a rapper is a red herring anyway. Politics are the text of Blank’s debut, and her wit — whether expressed through humor or hip-hop — serves as the delivery device.
When Whitman tells her character, “There’s definitely a voice under all those words, but the writing needs work,” it’s almost certain he’s repeating (or else paraphrasing) something Blank has heard before. At 129 minutes, “The 40-Year-Old Version” is long. Too long, by about half an hour — which is also true of the Judd Apatow film referenced by the title. Blank has a lot to say about “the 40-year-old woman’s point of view” and “the white gaze’s eroticism of black pain.” Directorial debuts are the place to be self-indulgent — maybe not as a strategy for getting signed to helm the next Marvel movie, but in the carpe-diem, do-it-yourself sense described by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “My Shot.” (Oh, to know what Blank thinks of “Hamilton”!) Better late than never, this film is Blank’s shot, and by staying so true to her voice, her aim hits home.