by Justin Chang
While the American film industry still has a long way to go in nurturing movies made by women and people of color, the Sundance Film Festival has long provided an important platform for marginalized voices. This is the festival that recently introduced us to pictures like The Farewell, from Lulu Wang, and Clemency, from Chinonye Chukwu. Eight years ago, Ava DuVernay premiered her film Middle of Nowhere at Sundance and became the first Black woman in the festival’s history to win best director for an American drama.
This year, Radha Blank became the second Black woman to earn that prize for her first feature, The Forty-Year-Old Version. It was a worthy winner, not just because it’s a terrific movie, but also because it’s specifically about the challenges of making meaningful, personal art from an underrepresented perspective.
Blank’s artistry has many facets: She has a sharp ear for comic dialogue and an exquisite eye, having shot this movie on gorgeous black-and-white 35-millimeter film. She also gives a very fine performance as a fictionalized version of herself, also named Radha Blank — a struggling artist from Harlem, who was hailed years earlier as a promising playwright.
Now, just a few months shy of her 40th birthday, she has little to show for that promise besides a play that she’s been working on for ages. She pays the bills by teaching drama at a local high school and spends a lot of time commiserating with her talent agent and longtime buddy Archie, played by Korean American actor Peter Kim in a sly riff on the gay-best-friend trope.
Archie urges Radha to seize any and every opportunity, even if it may require some compromise. At a party one night, he steers her toward J. Whitman, a powerful theater producer played with delicious smarminess by Tony Award-winner Reed Birney. After some tussling, Whitman eventually agrees to produce Radha’s play, which follows a Black couple in a fast-gentrifying Harlem. But he demands numerous changes, including the introduction of a white co-lead in order to show the face of gentrification itself and, of course, draw a larger audience.
Blank clearly delights in skewering the tone-deaf condescension of white men who fancy themselves cultural gatekeepers. But one of the reasons The Forty-Year-Old Version is so disarming is that Blank saves the toughest criticism for herself. She lets us see her character grapple with deep insecurities about her talent, her calling and her future — sometimes with tears, but more often with a well-timed, self-deprecating jab.
At one point, Radha decides to abandon theater and reinvent herself as a rapper, seizing upon a long-ago passion that she hopes will tie her more closely to a strong community of Black artists. And so begins a wide-ranging tour of New York’s hip-hop scene, from a boxing ring in the Bronx where female rappers go ferociously head-to-head, to a Brooklyn club where Radha does some recordings with a gruff but sensitive DJ, played by Oswin Benjamin. Radha’s talent in this arena is more than apparent, even if her nerves sometimes get the better of her — like when she freezes onstage in front of an audience that includes several of her high-school students.
If you cringe for Radha in that moment, as I did, consider it proof of how deeply Blank has secured your emotional investment in her journey. That’s no small feat, considering all the crowd-pleasing underdog-drama clichés the story could have stumbled into but somehow avoids.
A more obvious telling of this story might have ended with Radha discovering her true calling as a rapper, or figuring out how to put on a successful version of her play that stays true to her creative vision. But Blank seems less interested in clear resolutions than in examining how these two distinct worlds, theater and hip-hop, have shaped her complex identity as an artist. She doesn’t feel entirely at home in either space. And yet her work, at its best, becomes a bold synthesis of both.
As fast and funny as much of it is, The Forty-Year-Old Version also has a rich vein of melancholy. There’s an elegiac quality to the black-and-white images, which might bring to mind vintage New York pictures like Manhattan, Shadows and She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee‘s equally auspicious 1986 debut. As it happens, She’s Gotta Have It recently spawned a TV series for which Blank wrote a few episodes. But it would be a mistake to squeeze her into any kind of mold based on her influences. Radha Blank already has a voice that is gloriously her own, whichever version of it we hear next.