Funny and honest, Netflix’s The Forty-Year-Old Version takes a look at a group often ignored: older, big, Black woman. Radha Blank is a playwright on the cusp of 40. But after winning an award almost 10 years ago for 30 under 30, her career has fizzled out, so she decides to pursue rapping.
The film gives us stellar comedy from Radha Blank as she tries to navigate the theater industry and the white gatekeepers who hold the keys to success. White people telling us what is an authentic “Black” experience—a.k.a. poverty porn as RadhaMUSprime declares—or accusing us of not being Black because our writing doesn’t reflect their view of Blackness, is something all of us have heard an iteration of at least once.
An embarrassing moment onstage leads Radha Blank to retreat back into playwriting and making a deal with the devil—pardon, white gatekeeper—to change her story, which has now downgraded to including white gentrifiers, soy milk, and the “sassy, old Black woman.” This is a sharp reminder that without the inclusion of a white character or stereotypical Black characters, our stories are not considered marketable.
D (Oswin Benjamin), though younger, parallels Radha to a degree. He makes beats for rappers, and we see his frustration with the fact that his beats are used to talk about the usual: women and money. Radha’s authenticity—about who she is and where she is—allows her to tell a story that is unheard of in hip hop and is precisely why D gravitates to her.
The black-and-white cinematography aesthetic adds a grittiness that epitomizes the New York we know. Radha riding the bus, the variety of personalities and cultures we get to know in our diverse neighborhoods; it’s all raw and real. People aren’t wearing heaps of makeup. It’s not needed; they are genuine, and that’s beauty. The rest of the cast does an amazing job as well. The relationship between Elaine (Imani Lewis) and Rosa (Haskiri Velazquez) is adorable and an added layer to an already complex and diverse film.
I am a huge fan of the underdog. “There ain’t nothing wrong with you” should be an emblazoned neon sign visible for everyone. When Radha decides to switch to rapping, the majority of people have absolutely no faith in her capabilities and those that do—like her high school friend and manager Archie (Peter Kim) who saw her rap in high school—still believe it’s an unrealistic dream. Achievements are expected for the youth and if, for one reason or another, you haven’t achieved your goals by a certain age, the consensus is you never will.
Jeong Park / Netflix
Radha is a heroine who refuses to sacrifice her integrity and vision for her stories and people to dance for the white gatekeepers and white gaze. That’s commendable and it also begs the question: how much integrity do successful Black people and people of color have to sacrifice? Our fight to break into an industry inevitably transforms us into a cog in the machine we rail against.
Every step away from the default in this society means a larger opportunity to be ignored, except when they need the novelty of representation. When the topic is hot and you fit the demographic. If that occurs, there are still rules to stifle our voices so that what we release is not our voice—strong and forceful—but a diluted, acceptable one.
We need more stories like this. More stories like Radha Blank’s. There are already so many versions of the quirky, misunderstood outcast teen searching for their identity or voice. And searching for identity doesn’t always happen in our youth. Life can prevent that. But it does not mean failure. Sometimes we have to get older and settle into ourselves to discover who we are, and that’s just fine. Cheers to sisters. Cheers to Black women.
Featured Image: Netflix