Netflix’s The Forty-Year-Old Version follows Radha, a “flash-in-the-pan” playwright who, at age 40 and navigating the production of her new play, decides to become a rapper. It’s an unapologetic, effortlessly cool, and powerful film debut by writer/director/producer/star Radha Blank.
A scene in which Radha and D (Oswin Benjamin) sit close together on the foot of the bed, rapping what they would say to their mothers if they could, is one of the most intimate cinematic moments I’ve seen in a long time. This vulnerability and complexity fill The Forty-Year-Old Version, sprinkled with sharp comedy and infectiously good hip hop.
A complex celebration
Blank’s film is an underdog story exposing myriad societal and personal roadblocks that artists, especially women of color, experience when navigating different artistic spaces. The film weaves a tapestry of Radha’s personal struggles, like coping with the death of her mother and managing her contentious relationship with her career, with broader issues such as ageism and the artistic fetishization of Black pain.
Ultimately Radha’s story is a celebration of the Black experience and strives to show the intricacies of that which is often oversimplified and misinterpreted. Shot in 35-millimeter black-and-white film, the movie aims to show hip-hop culture through an unexpected lens.
“Hip-hop is often oversexualised, oversaturated. Black and white brings it to a level of cool and vulnerability that we don’t often see it at,” Blank explained in a recent interview with The Guardian.
Your true voice
Talented actors and rappers stack the diverse cast. Blank’s performance is magnetic, her raw abilities, transparency, and expert comedic timing on full display as she portrays the duality of Radha’s personality. While Radha juggles appeasing her theater collaborators and receiving scrutiny from the Black community for “selling out,” her rapper alter ego, RadhaMUSprime, becomes the salvation for her authentic voice. An electric current of empowerment surged through my screen every time RadhaMUSprime performed, rapping exactly what she wanted to say, how she wanted to say it. It’s a reminder of the power of one’s individual voice, and how art can facilitate that expression.
After years of struggling to make a name for herself in the entertainment industry, Blank won the Best Director Award for The Forty-Year-Old Version at Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered last January. Much of the film’s power is in the truth of Blank’s journey. Her perseverance is an inspiration for artists of color to stay true to their voices, and to resist the boxes that we are often pressured to fit in. Despite how Black women have often been portrayed in TV and film, Blank’s movie is a firm statement to the industry, and to everyone, that Black women can relish the complexities of work, love, loss, and success. As Blank elaborates in the same Guardian article, “I’m in favor of the black woman on screen looking into herself. That’s what I’m a champion of.”
Image description: A still from the black-and-white film The Forty-Year-Old Version. It’s a close-up on actor/director Radha Blank, a Black woman, riding public transit. She’s standing and holding onto a commuter’s loop, drinking out of a metal travel cup, and wearing a patterned headwrap and a striped blazer. Her eyes look to the side.
What, When, Where
The Forty-Year-Old Version is available to stream on Netflix.