The Forty-Year-Old Version (5 stars)

The Forty-Year-Old Version

Forty is just the start in Radha Blank's dynamic debut, following a playwright turned rapper

'This isn't Dangerous Minds,' a flailing African-American playwright reminds her class of volatile but loveable students in a film that challenges our expectations at every turn. The feature debut of writer-director Radha Blank finds her 39-year-old New Yorker trying on for size a daunting new method of expression, as she funnels her frustrations into a succession of amusingly playful and genuinely powerful rhymes.

Introduced at a new talent night as a 'much older female MC', it's clear that Radha is up against it perception-wise, but her skill as a rapper is undeniable. Going by the name 'RadhaMUSprime' – something that's flippantly flung at her by a student – she's soon collaborating with twentysomething D (Oswin Benjamin), who crafts her beats and admires her storytelling. Having previously been 'one to watch', Radha is struggling to get her plays produced, hence the creative departure, one that provides her with the perfect platform to vent.

Teaching to make ends meet, she's persuaded by her best mate and agent Archie (Peter Kim) to collaborate with white theatre producer Josh Whitman (Reed Birney). A snooty and insufferable individual, Whitman is famed for his love of stories of Black hardship and his 'feminist' takes on the classics; he's particularly proud of his all-female spin on 12 Angry Men and is currently pitching a Harriet Tubman musical. When he gets hold of Radha's latest play, exploring the gentrification of Harlem, he reconstructs it to mirror his own worldview.

Despite moments that pop with energy and rage, for the most part the film unfolds in an appealingly laidback fashion; the reasonably significant runtime, rather than feeling excessive, simply gives room for the story to breathe, while Blank's subtle approach to humour and way of weathering her character's humiliations is divine, and she's a hell of a rapper. Filmed in sumptuous black and white, the aesthetic harks back to classic movie depictions of the Big Apple, while giving it the kind of indie cool associated with more modern films like Mutual Appreciation and Frances Ha.

Full of character and comedy, The Forty-Year-Old Version is also smart and scathing on perceptions of women as they approach middle-age, on the struggles associated with a career as an artist, and especially on virtue signalling white liberals and their power to decide what constitutes an authentic Black experience. Despite her supposed ancientness, Blank's voice feels distinct and vital; she's gone and given us one of the most exciting debuts of the year.

Available to watch in cinemas from Fri 2 Oct and on Netflix from Fri 9 Oct.

The Forty-Year-Old Version

  • 5 stars
  • 2020
  • 2h 9min
  • Directed by: Radha Blank
  • Cast: Reed Birney, Welker White, Jacob Ming-Trent

Comedy-drama that follows Radha as she vacillates between the worlds of hip hop and theatre on a quest to find her true voice.