Sundance 2020: Radha Blank's Mic Drop 'The 40 Year Old Version'
by Alex Billington
February 2, 2020
Find your own voice! This is one of the films that deserves to break out of the Sundance Film Festival this year – a refreshingly original, totally badass, uncompromising directorial debut. One year ago at Sundance, New York native playwright Radha Blank was sitting in the audience at a screening and was encouraged by her friend Lena Waithe to stop worrying and make her damn film (Waithe went on to produce it). She also encouraged her to make it exactly the way she wanted, to tell her story, to be fearless. And she has delivered. The 40-Year-Old Version is Radha Blank's feature directorial debut - she writes, directs, produces, and stars in it. And it's awesome. She knocks this one out of the park, around the block, and back. Its a hilarious and honest story of a woman who's voice we all should be listening to already. Get in line now to watch this.
Shot in grainy B&W on 35mm right on the streets of New York City, this authentically New York story is an autobiographical comedy starring Radha Blank as herself, Radha Blank, a 40-year-old woman struggling with her career as a playwright. She can barely pay her rent, is considerably lonely, and every time she tries to pitch herself, no one really cares about her or her unique work. One day after another bad day she decides to try something different and start a career as a rapper, dropping rhymes in hopes that maybe she can have more of an impact in music than theater. She meets a talented producer, "D" played by Oswin Benjamin, and records one killer track with him. But then is lured back to theater when a rich white producer wants to produce one of her plays - but she has to revise it to appeal to mostly white audiences who go to these plays.
The film throws out the usual trends and tropes related to black cinema – and the plot itself is literally about Radha giving in to changing her play to make it "poverty porn" for white people to enjoy. But at the end of the day she realizes – fuck that! "Find your own voice!" And that she does. (She turns "40 Year Old Version" into the acronym FYOV and rattles off a bunch of other things that can mean.) The film is entirely her voice, both literally and thematically, focusing solely on a 40 year old black woman from New York dealing with all the ups and downs, bullshit and good shit, unforgettable and forgettable moments of trying to be an artist in New York. I laughed so much watching the film, which made me genuinely happy. Not because I personally connect with her story, rather I found it creative and witty, and it's gratifying to see something so authentic.
Radha also makes The 40 Year Old Version so damn good by calling out bullshit, and doing so with humor. She doesn't take shit from anyone (unless they will make her plays), and refuses to do anything she doesn't like. In her play, and her raps, and her conversations in the film, she lets lose on what's wrong with society, and why people are still awfully racist but don't care much to admit it. There are a few times where she's over-acting and playing scenes up just for the camera, but it's still amusing to see her share this playful side. She has heart, she's genuine, and she's all about expressing her voice and making sure we listen even if we don't want to. Even though it runs for a lengthy 129 minutes, Blank keeps it energetic and engaging with great scenes right until the very end. Welcome the world of cinema, Radha, please keep shaking things up.