The Forty-Year-Old Version (dir. Radha Blank, 2020) is a comedic, semi-autobiographical film set in the Black enclaves of New York City. It considers (amongst other things) how getting a life can be very messy when you’re a Black-woman artist who wants to have integrity. Our journeys can be crushing, discouraging, sighful — and also? Hysterically grimy at a low register that’s only audible at the decibel of lived experience. This humor isn’t only about laughing through pain, but laughing from a custom pain.
With The Forty-Year-Old Version, we stroll to neglected corners of dark humor — to the laughter dancing above Black-woman pain. Art is often intimidated into examining the ‘universal’ beauties of human life — especially when said art’s muses are marginalized people — but sometimes the most profound observation an artist can make has little to do with beauty. For instance, throughout Version, Radha observes how myopic interests can (embarrassingly) prevent us from recognizing and affirming each other.
Radha (the titular character) is a playwright who just wants her needs met while telling stories that serve Black audiences, but the empowered people she meets back her into a corner instead of backing her up. As if these career stagnations aren’t enough of a downer, Radha is lonely too. None of the people she wants (professionally, personally) choose her as she needs to be chosen. The tension of her existence isn’t an exciting push-and-pull — it’s the boring gravity of inertia. Somehow, everyone just can’t with her. (And returning to the pitfalls of myopia: as Radha licks her wounds, she fails to appreciate the complexity of her loyal supporters — her students, her friends, her eventual lover.)
The only forward-movement that doesn’t stop for Radha is time itself. She’s pushing forty, and the walls of her apartment seem to close in on her with each passing day. Thankfully she doesn’t feel alone for too long; when she revives an old passion, sparks reignite, and people start ‘seeing’ her for real. Her troubles don’t end, but her life does start moving again.
At first, I thought the film’s NYC-borough-repping was laid on thick (I’m talking about that oddly placed Tribe Called Quest track in the delayed-bus scene), but as I kept watching, I understood that Version was in on its own jokes. For one: there is no singular ‘New York,’ and you can’t pretend otherwise without falling into a montage of parodies. Radha Blank suggests the ‘real’ New York isn’t strongest in obtrusive landmarks, but in immeasurable tenderness between people who (somehow) haven’t been hardened by their hardships. New York is tough, and it’s also warm and cheesy. Like Version: the city is black and white, and it’s also full-color.
*This film is currently streaming on Netflix