Radha Blank’s debut feature, The 40-year-old Version is a comedy-drama about a playwright, of the same name and played by Radha Blank, from Brooklyn, New York trying to salvage the momentum of the earlier success in her career that has since died. Radha is about to enter into her forties and is itching for her next big break that will solidify her as a prominent playwright in the theatre industry. To pay the bills Radha’s character works as a high school drama teacher in the Bronx helping students learn to hone and express their art through poetry and theatre. Not taking her own advice, Radha experiences burnout and struggles to find inspiration for her next play. In an incident many BIPOC creatives have experienced that involves being pigeonholed, Radha turns down, or rather beats down, a powerful theatre director’s idea that she writes his next Harriet Tubman musical and in a moment of vulnerability decides to turn hip hop to articulate her anxieties and make a career as a rapper.
The 40-year-old Version is an honest look at how damaging having expectations can be when we create a plan for our lives. Radha does not think at almost forty that she would still be living in her small match-box apartment in New York and not a famous playwright. What Blank articulates throughout this film is the fear and disappointment that arises when you’re chasing a dream you’ve yet to see fulfilled. Many of us think we have an idea of what our success will look and feel like by a certain age, The 40-year old Version challenges this notion through comedy and masterful shots of the journey of a woman in a city constantly re-imagining itself. Hip-hop serves as its own character in the film and is a prominent feature of the film. Radha oftens raps candidly about her experiences as an older woman in an old-school New York style flow and uses the art form to articulate a version of herself that was kept veiled. Radha shows hip-hop and the Black community in it all of its grit, tenacity and diversity in scenes with battle-rap, trap, and old-school forms that performed by Black creatives who are Muslim, male, female and share a love for the craft.
Blank’s performance as lead, writer, and director is so effortless it is hard to distinguish her roles apart. Her performance is as exceptional as her high school students Rosa, Elaine, Waldo and Kamal (played by Haskiri Velazquez, Imani Lewis, Antonio Ortiz, and T.J Atoms) who serve as her cheerleaders throughout the film, believing in her when she doesn’t believe in herself. Blank explores the pressures of constantly creating content in a capitalist society that demands quick and fast production in order to maintain relevance, but sometimes requires you to sacrifice your artistic vision. Radha struggles to navigate the need to take work that just pays the bills with the need to express her art in her way, ultimately choosing to stay true to her voice.
The film breathes in the right moments and it incorporates shots of the people of the Bronx community in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing style echoing Blank’s self-deprecating humour and charisma. The audience gets to witness a Black creative still figuring out what the definition of that means to her in her late-thirties and exploring her sexuality, purpose and life itself. What the film comments on so brilliantly is how isolating the act of gatekeeping can be for BIPOC artists. As many creative industries, especially theatre, are predominantly white, who gets to decide what stories get to be told? The 40-year-old version argues that artists should fund their own vision and don’t wait for acceptance from those that don’t live your experiences.
By: Serena Lopez