After many years of struggle, the playwright Radha Blank came to wider attention as a writer-producer on Spike Lee's recent serial reworking of his early film She's Gotta Have It for Netflix, and we may have Blank to thank for the way that series converted a rough-edged, unavoidably male auteur text into something more polyphonic, vibrant and generous still. Having hit up her employers for some of that big streaming money, Blank now makes her directorial debut with a film that looks to be actively channelling the American indie scene Lee did so much to renew in the late Eighties/early Nineties. The Forty-Year-Old Version is a pandemic-relatable tale of stalled development, shot in handsomely chalky black-and-white by Eric Branco, and possessed of an especially earthy sense of humour. Almost every one of the new bohemians Blank's camera alights upon is bored, horny and underemployed; if there's been a more accurate depiction of the creative life on screen in recent years, I've yet to see it. (And this, of course, is why the powers-that-be want so badly to retrain us.)
How close Ms. Blank is to this reality, only she can say, but to all outward appearances, she's writing what she knows here: the movie plays like backstory, cluing the viewer in on where she was and what she got up to in the days before Spike came calling. She plays no less than "Radha Blank", playwright and sometime fixture on those 30 Under 30 lists, now caught in the midst of a pretty considerable mid-career slump, seen teaching creative writing to Harlem college kids, and looking on ruefully as her work is persistently rejected by (white) impresarios stuck with an altogether proscriptive vision of what theatre by writers of colour should look and sound like. Stuck for better ideas, she decides to relaunch herself as a rapper going under the name RadhaMUS Prime - the Black equivalent of whatever Joaquin Phoenix turned himself into before he did Joker and won the Oscar. This affords us the unexpected sight of a woman in her mid-40s attempting to make her way in the rap game, clad in a do-rag more redolent of Ena Sharples than Queen Latifah. It gives the film the chance to rub up against such pointed issues as opportunity, heritage and cultural gatekeeping, and to keep its sights squarely on the spectre of artistic failure. No straightforward rags-to-riches narrative, Radha's story instead suggests that creative progress is haphazard by its very nature, a matter of one or two peaks and some very deep troughs.
First and foremost, however, The Forty-Year-Old Version is funny: it doesn't tackle those issues head-on so much as back itself up and grind lustily against them. We meander through distinct worlds, each amusing in its own way. In higher education, Blank can subvert the established Dangerous Minds template of inspirational teaching by getting in slanging matches with her pupils and halfway encouraging those crushes her students have developed on her; over in theatreland, meanwhile, we learn of an all-female staging of 12 Angry Men (a poster later reveals the play to have been retitled The Angry 12, simultaneously absurd and yet not unthinkable in 2020) and an "integrated" production of August Wilson's Fences. The abiding fondness for performance in all forms extends to choice supporting parts, like Lamont (Jacob Ming-Trent), the aggressively sexual homeless guy who heckles Radha every time she leaves her digs, and D (Oswin Benjamin), the DJ who shows up at Radha's auditions to get paid and winds up giving notes, like a 21st century update of Chazz Palminteri's character in Bullets Over Broadway. Deep down, this is a film that knows creativity is often born of unlikely collaborations, and what may initially seem like wrong turns.
Up on the surface, The Forty-Year-Old Version sometimes seems a little ramshackle. This will sound like a backhanded compliment, but what makes it so credible an artistic vision is that it's almost exactly the film you can imagine the Radha within the movie making, bound up at some essential level with the plight of a heroine circling round, screwing up and trudging back to square one. I suspect an indie producer of the late Eighties/early Nineties would have pushed for a tighter edit - or simply never have released the funds that would have allowed Blank to shoot a two-hour-plus movie in the first place. (That's the Netflix effect, as applicable to Black women as it has been to white male directors. It's equality of a kind.) Yet along the mazy and winding road to the film's big theatrical finale - a note of show-must-go-on uplift, nicely complicated by the fact Radha considers this show to be the worst kind of sellout - The Forty-Year-Old Version keeps gathering up moments of insight, valuable (if sometimes chastening) life experience. We're here to watch a character refind - and refine - her voice, and in doing so allow the woman playing her to spin nights and years of toestubs, bellyflops and other public humiliations into a raggedy-assed triumph of sorts. That's a life skill, and it's what creatives do better than anyone else I know; maybe we should offer to retrain venture capitalists and day traders in this art of humility.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is now streaming on Netflix.