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Radha Blank stands on a bus, drinking from a straw while giving someone offscreen side-eye in The Forty-Year-Old Version Photo: Jeong Park / Netflix

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Netflix’s The Forty-Year-Old Version takes a sardonic, electric look at creative freedom

Radha Blank breaks out as a middle-aged playwright moving into hip-hop

The days are all the same for Radha Blank, protagonist of Netflix’s clever comedy-drama The Forty-Year-Old Version. The playwright who once won Playwright magazine’s 30 Under 30 starts off the film by running late to her teaching day job. Everything is conspiring against her: she barely catches her bus, and then it’s frustratingly slow, with a disabled person seemingly waiting at every bus stop to slow her progress. When she asks the driver if she can get off the bus before he helps the disabled passengers on, he loudly rebukes her for her supposed selfishness.

The sardonic scene might as well be ripped from Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, except this comedy is far less misanthropic. Instead The Forty-Year-Old Version — which marks the real Radha Blank’s debut feature as a screenwriter, actor, and director — finds her self-named character searching for success in the face of white gatekeepers. By lampooning New York’s theater scene, with The Forty-Year-Old Version, Blank inventively offers a crisp analysis of the struggles older Black women creators face.

Blank appropriates the title of Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and her lonely, sardonic character Radha does complement Apatow’s adrift protagonists. Radha is still grieving the death of her artistic mother, refusing to visit her apartment or sort out her possessions a year later, even though her brother routinely leaves her unanswered voicemails asking her to help out. Radha also lives a solitary life. Even the rowdy homeless man across the street from her apartment, one of the film’s many comic-relief elements, chides her for her absent sex life. But most of all, Radha can’t comprehend how her artistic career has evaporated since her early, promising days.

Radha Blank sits ringside at a rap battle in The Forty-Year-Old Version Photo: Jeong Park / Netflix

She supplements her income by teaching drama. Her classroom scenes are wonderful free-for-alls, where wildly funny kids gain confidence by connecting with acting. The dynamic between Radha and her playful high-school pupils is akin to Sister Act 2, with the temperamental Elaine (Imani Lewis) as a dead ringer for Lauryn Hill’s rebellious character. She’s the one who spits back the unvarnished truth: Radha hasn’t written a meaningful project since 2010. She’s languishing in a workshop production, hierarchically lower than regional theater. Elaine’s reality check leads Radha to an unlikely solution: She decides to write a hip-hop mixtape from a 40-year-old woman’s point of view.

Don’t call it a comeback. Or a midlife crisis, either. Under the name RadhaMUS Prime, working with a 26-year-old producer named D (Oswin Benjamin), Rahda writes graphic rhymes that usually concern the bodily pitfalls of aging. The rap scenes, when Radha unleashes her dormant emotions, feature the film’s most evocative photography. Relying on handheld shots and whip-pans, Eric Branco’s grainy black-and-white cinematography energetically blurs the lines between documentary and narrative cinema, giving the film a lyrical neo-realism texture. The way Blank and Branco often envelop the characters in impenetrable shadows is reminiscent of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, another film about inner-city characters suffering from a spiritual malaise.

Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It is another visual influence. Like Lee, Blank employs documentary-style fourth-wall breaks, which ingeniously let her manifest Radha’s self-doubts about performance, integrity, and sex. The Forty-Year-Old Version is a horny movie: When Radha asks her neighbors what makes a 40-year-old a woman, they individually consider whether the age causes a sexual peak or decline. For her part, Radha unabashedly craves sex. And men are attracted to her in turn. Seeing a plus-sized Black woman sexually desired in film is unfortunately still a rarity. While Blank refrains from beating viewers over the head with this subversion, just the acknowledgement of her attractions becomes refreshing. The same goes for Radha and D’s visit to a Queen of the Ring rap battle that pits women hip-hop artists against each other. The array of minority voices expressing themselves in rhythmic delight at the center of the ring shines a spotlight on a little-known subculture.

But recording hip-hop tracks isn’t enough for Radha: Through her gay Korean best friend and agent Archie (Peter Kim), she partners with J. Whitman (Reed Birney), a white Broadway producer with a reputation for backing Black poverty porn. One of the recurring punchlines in an extremely funny movie are the shows Whitman is producing, such as his Harriet Tubman and Shirley Chisholm musicals. As a powerful gatekeeper, his familiar focus on Black suffering (over the kind of Black excellence Radha celebrates) blunts her authenticity by shaving her truthful characters down to cheap stereotypes. His power causes Radha to feel like a pawn in her own career.

Whitman is a simple yet powerful totem, and Blank wields him incisively to rebuke the terrible habit some white allies share, of building creative relationships that are more based in belittling paternalism than mutual respect. Only through his supposed acumen for sound advice, Whitman believes, can Radha accomplish her dreams. But his advice is based on a myopic worldview that centers white people as the tastemakers of racial progress. Radha has written a play, Harlem Ave., about a Black man and his lovely activist wife who struggle to keep his parents’ store. But Whitman says the play doesn’t sound authentic, like a Black person wrote it. He insists it should lean further into the theme of gentrification, in order to address its core audience — white people.

Radha is forced to either compromise her artistic vision for the success she craves, or relegate herself to obscurity. Her challenge is common for not just Black people, but Black women, too. Faced with white gatekeepers who use questions like “Does this have universal appeal?” as code for “Will this appeal to the white gaze?”, Black people in the visual and literary arts are continually forced to defend their viewpoints. They’re often told to convert their authentic narratives into slave musicals or all-white plays, or make the kind of compromises Radha is eventually pushed to, because pandering to certain audiences buys prestige. It’d be even funnier onscreen if it weren’t so true, but Blank still manages to sharply maximize it for laughs.

Radha Blank spits verses at the mic in an apartment production studio in The Forty-Year-Old Version Photo: Jeong Park / NETFLIX

When I watched The Forty-Year-Old Version at Sundance, the final act suffered from one too many components, involving an ex-lover of Radha’s. That subplot has been cut, yet the pacing of those final 30 minutes still feels languid. Too often, the narrative veers into predictability, as when Radha accepts a fellow rapper’s weed right before a hip-hop showcase, with obvious results. The same foreseeable dread blights the first performance of Radha’s Harlem Ave. Even while the white audience leers at the glib onstage racial reconciliation, and the Black audience mostly eats it up, savvy viewers will anticipate Radha’s final stand for her integrity.

In a film where Blank uses a spontaneous wit to express Radha’s internal conflicts, in a final act featuring frank discussions between not only Radha and her brother, but Radha and Archie, Blank reaches for easy didacticism by having both characters explain Radha’s worth to her. The heartfelt speech, and the show-stopping verse Radha delivers on the opening night of her play falls into a similar trap. The finale could use streamlining, choosing either the speech or the verse as a narrative vehicle. Using both feels like overkill, especially when they’re punctuated by a literal mic drop.

But amid the swooning jazz soundtrack, featuring selections from Courtney Bryan and Quincy Jones, is a hilariously combative work that honestly appraises white gatekeepers. In fact, everything about The Forty-Year-Old Version feels fresh. Especially Blank’s down-to-earth acting and her unique vision — which not only extrapolates the systematic prejudices Black creatives face, but critically inspects whether stardom is worth the spiritual cost.

The Forty-Year-Old Version is streaming on Netflix now.