'The 40-Year-Old Version': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A debut that sings (and raps) with delight.

A burnt-out playwright chasing her dream turns to rap to get inspired again in this feature debut from writer-director Radha Blank.

Writer-director Radha Blank’s coming-of-age-in-your-40s tale The 40-Year-Old Version is a love letter full of more love letters. It’s a love letter to the people of pre-gentrified Harlem (she’s a New York native), to old-school hip-hop, to struggling artists, to young people with big dreams and to black women who dare to live life out of the box. With a carefully crafted visual language, an inventive Greek Chorus composed of characters who reflect New York’s diversity and a funny yet thought-provoking script, the film creates a world that you want to soak up frame by frame.

Shot on black-and-white 35mm with brief interludes of color, the movie pays serious homage to Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It.  Yet while so clearly referencing Lee, 40-Year-Old Version still asserts itself in a way that feels wholly original and lands like a cinematic response more than an imitation. That Blank was a writer on the recent Netflix episodic reboot of She’s Gotta Have It adds to the ritual magic of transmission from experienced director to up-and-comer. Blank’s film also brings to mind Barry Jenkins’ feature debut Medicine for Melancholy, which was also in black-and-white and revolved around a couple of free-spirited young black folks existing inside of their city’s rapid gentrification.

Blank plays a fictionalized version of herself, a playwright who pays her bills by teaching high school theater. She hasn’t staged a new play in a while and her agent and childhood best friend Archie (a charming Peter Kim) doesn’t hesitate to remind her of that every chance he gets. The play she wants to get made is about a black couple in Harlem who operate a grocery store, and prospective producers have all passed on it. But when Archie pulls some strings, she is finally able to get the play financed and it eventually debuts on Broadway.

Of course, this comes with some unsettling compromises. At the direction of the producer, Blank adds a white lead character so, in his words, the theatergoing audience (read upper-middle-class white people) will have someone to “relate to” in the story. She also has cut several of her people-of-color characters, given her main characters more “authentic” black accents and allowed a white woman to direct, even though the producer assured her the play would have a black helmer.

One gets the sense that Blank is hyper-aware of the “one-and-done” phenomenon that has often plagued women directors, especially black women and other women of color, and she’s not going to waste her chance. The black-and-white cinematography serves as a kind of liberating restraint, as if preserving the pic within cinematic amber so that viewers can see the characters with new eyes. It’s a marvel, too, that there are several supporting characters that make an impact in their single scenes: a bus driver, a battle rapper, a sharp-tongued black lady using a walker. It’s Blank’s story, but it’s also the story of her family and her community, and everyone has a valuable role to play.

The movie could have been 20 minutes shorter and lags a bit in the last act, but the pacing is rhythmic and the way the film builds to its conclusion and ties together its micro and macro narrative threads is impressive, especially for a first feature.

On top of all that, there are many ways the film battle raps with historical representations of black women onscreen, and ultimately it wins the duel. Radha Blank the character is a unicorn when it comes to film history: a black woman protagonist who is middle-aged, has no children (or angst about that fact), has a love interest 20 years her junior and uses her big mouth at full volume without apology or code-switching according to who is in front of her. She also refuses to give up on her art even when she is not getting traction. It’s difficult to think of a movie that has centered a character like this (again, except Nola Darling in She’s Gotta Have It), and it’s exciting to see the pic silently critiquing black poverty porn by doing the exact opposite.

The 40-Year-Old Version is a beautiful achievement, one that ultimately calls attention to the huge gaps in representation of different kinds of black characters on film. It’s a gap that Blank clearly intends to fill; I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Production companies: Hillman Grad, New Slate Ventures
Cast: Radha Blank, Reed Birney, Oswin Benjamin, Peter Kim, Imani Lewis, Jacob Ming-Trent, Antonio Ortiz
Writer-director: Radha Blank
Producers: Lena Waithe, Jordan Fudge, Radha Blank, Inuka Bacote-Capiga, Jennifer Semler, Rishi Rajani
Cinematographer: Eric Branco
Editor: Robert Grigsby Wilson
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
U.S. Sales: Endeavor Content

 

129 minutes