The Sundance success story that sees writer/director Radha Blank shine both in front of and behind the camera. The Forty Year Old Version confronts the tough realities of being an ageing black female in the creative industries. This is a semi-autobiographical story for Radha Blank who comes from a theatre background and has experienced firsthand many of the setbacks the protagonist experiences in the film. Referring to her portrayal as a “elevated version of self”, she boldly takes on sexism, racism and ageism with spectacular effect.
Radha plays an unsuccessful NY playwright, who is struggling to revive her career before 40. She is unfulfilled by her work in theatre, and uninspired in her teaching role at a local high school. Met with numerous setbacks in her professional and personal life, she turns to Hip Hop to rediscover her voice.
Music is the backbone of the film. It is what Radha uses to address many of the creative struggles she experiences. It also sets the scene for her triumphant journey of self-expression and self-acceptance.
But let’s be clear: Radha is not trying to be a rapper, or establish a new career. Rapping merely helps her to transform her frustrations into creative energy. It is the vehicle that allows her to express herself authentically in the moment. This is vastly different to “mid-life crisis movies” that put unnecessary emphasis on reinvention, rather than on the emotional growth of the characters in crisis.
Hip hop also sets the stage for one of the film’s most prominent characters: the city of New York. It is personified with brilliant additions from MCs/ NY natives Styles P, Sadat and Young M.A..
The most successful comedic moments in The Forty Year Old Version are also its most critical moments. The approach to unfunny things like gentrification, racism and stereotyping under the veil of comedy are incredibly effective. In this way, the film is reminiscent of Robert Townsend‘s Hollywood Shuffle, with a modern treatment not unlike that of Spike Lee‘s film, Do The Right Thing.
This satire might be coming from a forty-year-old perspective, but the notion of selling out is a universal fear. Or at least it is for minorities. What the film does masterfully is look at the idea of compromising oneself for the sake of advancement or appeasing those in positions of power. It asks quite pointedly: What price are you willing to pay for success, and who gets to decide the cost?
For a film so deeply rooted in time (and the passing of time), the black and white cinematography gives The Forty Year Old Version a timeless quality. It strips back all of the busyness and lets audiences focus entirely on the complex characters on screen. And they deserve our uninterrupted attention.
A recommended watch for creatives of every age.
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