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Radha Blank relearns how to live in color in ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’

The playwright’s feature film debut on Netflix is a sweet and sharp coming-of-middle-age story

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Everything about Radha, the star character of The Forty-Year-Old Version, suggests that she should have her life figured out.

She’s got her own apartment and a steady job. She’s mothering herself because her actual mother is dead. And she’s about to turn 40.

Instead, Radha, frightened that her best creative and sexual years are behind her, is in the midst of a second coming-of-age. Her story, equal parts acerbic and tender, comes from a real place: the experiences of writer-director Radha Blank, who stars as herself in her feature film debut. The Forty-Year-Old Version begins streaming Oct. 9 on Netflix.

Blank is a playwright whose best-known work is Seed, which premiered at Harlem’s National Black Theatre in September 2011. Her filmic avatar, Radha, (for the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to the writer-director as Blank, and her character in the film as Radha) finds herself teetering on the edge of insignificance. The students in the high school drama class she teaches don’t respect her. Though a magazine named her as one of theater’s 30 under 30, she hasn’t had any new work produced in about a decade. And in her day-to-day life, she’s practically invisible, which has its advantages — less street harassment! — but is mostly dispiriting.

Reed Birney (left) and Radha Blank (right) star in Netflix’s The Forty-Year-Old Version, a film on middle-aged Black womanhood.

NETFLIX

Though her agent arranges a casual run-in with a well-to-do white producer named Josh Whitman (played by a note-perfect Reed Birney), Radha finds herself battling demons that Black creatives know all too well. When Radha pitches her play about a Harlem grocer and his activist wife struggling to maintain ownership of their store as the neighborhood gentrifies, Whitman — who likely hasn’t set foot north of 125th Street since the 1970s — issues a response thick with white gatekeeper condescension. “The idea is powerful … it rang as a little inauthentic,” he says.

A lost Radha subsequently decides to exhume a part of herself she’s allowed to lie fallow since high school — her skills as an emcee — and put out a mixtape. Her rapper name, RadhaMUSprime, after the Transformer, is one Blank actually performs under in real life.

The Forty-Year-Old Version offers a refreshing, unpretentious and often hilarious take on middle-aged Black womanhood. Along with the recent I Am episode of Lovecraft Country, it opens our eyes to the possibilities that come with embracing what these women have to offer. Too often, the beauty standard of “Black don’t crack” only embraces middle-aged Black women as long as any traces of age — both physical and psychological — are erased.

In the case of Lovecraft Country’s Hippolyta, played by Aunjanue Ellis, 51, the character’s wisdom, adventure and self-assuredness get foregrounded in a way that’s foreign, even to her. Hippolyta escapes the daily drudgery of domestic servitude as a wife or mother figure by time traveling. She gets to experience being a backup dancer for Josephine Baker and a Dahomey Amazon warrior without being disqualified because she doesn’t have the sleek, supermodel figure of, say, Iman.

Seeing Radha’s 26-year-old producer, D (Oswin Benjamin), admire her creativity and pursue her body in earnest, was a welcome antidote to what has become an unfortunate norm: yet another trailer in which a middle-aged Black actress plays a kindly, sexless matron. The other end of the sexuality spectrum is equally dispiriting. Leslie Jones, 53, was often called upon to play a scarily oversexed cougar lacking in self-awareness during her tenure at Saturday Night Live, a stereotype that was rarely, if ever, counterbalanced with roles that treated her as innately desirable. The Forty-Year-Old Version is never mean nor cruel, even when its jokes are at Radha’s expense — its sharpest barbs come from Radha’s drama students, a group of charming, if tactless, hormonal hellions.

The film exists in playful conversation with Spike Lee’s 1986 feature debut, She’s Gotta Have It, though Blank maintains her own uptown vibe in keeping with her setting. (Blank was a writer on the Netflix series adaptation of She’s Gotta Have It, which starred DeWanda Wise as a modern-day Nola Darling. Her relationship to Lee’s work is a reciprocal one.) Shot in black and white, The-Forty-Year-Old Version replaces the Black bohemia of Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood with a grittier, more impatient Harlem. Blank exchanges the spacious sex shrine of a loft where Nola lives out her 20s for a cramped one-bedroom. And unlike Nola’s bumper crop of lovers, Radha’s not getting much action — the film opens with her craning against a wall to better hear her neighbors going at it.

The Forty-Year-Old Version was a hit at Sundance earlier this year, and it’s easy to see why Blank claimed the jury prize for dramatic directing. The film flows with the same ease, complexity and humor that characterize Radha’s rhymes. And it reminds us there’s still plenty of room to grow, as an artist, a lover, sibling and friend, even when you’re a regular woman staring down her 40th trip around the sun.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.