Harlem Writer Spreads Her Wings: Radha Blank in ‘40-Year Old Version’
YO! Where my period at? These are the lyrics Radha Blank spits in the new Netflix film “The 40-Year Old Version.” Enter Radha. A Black female playwright, budding lyricist, poet, womanist, and arts teacher. She’s been writing for a long time and yearns to be acknowledged for her artistic genius. But she also wants to stay true to herself and her Harlem roots. Radha’s signature gold, door knocker earrings, African headwrap, and no nonsense attitude create the artist’s swag in the film.
The film is an ode to every Black girl artists’ dreams of making it in the Big City. It’s also an ode to New York City and Harlem itself, known for making and breaking dreams of those who dare.
Hip hop music is played throughout the film. The music of Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah and others create the overall vibe. You feel that the hip hop baton is being passed down from Queen Latifah to Radha in the film. It is more than fitting.
Her manager and bestie Archie has the perfect idea to help sell Radha’s work to a notable New York City play producer, yet it gets complicated because Archie has to “sell” a bit of himself to get into the producer’s good graces after Radha clobbers him at an upscale reception. Why did Radha beat the brakes off the producer? He hinted that Radha should write mainstream friendly “poverty porn” in order to appeal to the interests of theater patrons. Radha felt disrespected.
Questions surround Radha constantly during the film. Can an artist be successful without selling out? Can I make a mixtape at 40? Does anyone still want me? Paying my rent versus my integrity?
Radha says, “Even my dreams need a rewrite.” I could feel that. It’s so relatable that as her art is progressing, her personal life is falling apart. Radha battles loneliness, feelings that she’s having a mid-life crises, and fears about her financial stability. Sis was really going through it!
The humorous parts of the film include Radha’s impatience as she rides the city bus that has multiple delays when she’s running late to work. The hilarious personalities of the students she works with in the after school club in Harlem. The feelings of frustration she expresses being an artist whose representation wants her to compromise her integrity and cultural identity for the almighty dollar.
Radha eventually sells her work to the producer, but the process is not without drama. She wants a Black director, they say they’re all booked. She wants more realistic portrayal of the characters and their experience in Harlem. They want gentrification to be at the center of the play’s message but not from a Black perspective.
Sprinkled throughout the film are the appearances of characters who have something to add about Radha’s life or life in Harlem in general. There’s the wise, elder Black woman who’s seen it all and done it all. There’s the Latinx female fast food worker. There’s the homeless man who lives across the street from Radha’s apartment who won’t stop flirting with her. There’s the Asian bodega store owner and the Black youth who lend their commentary. They are all rooting for Radha in some way. Even though Radha’s students give her a hard time, they later come to the opening night of her play to support.
I could relate to the scenes where Radha struggled to teach some of the surly youth she worked with. There was the diva student who wants all of the attention. The young male students who can’t stop talking about sex and girls. The students who always have a complaint. And the ones who are neutral no matter what. If you’ve ever been a public school teacher, an arts teacher, or an urban teacher, you would be able to relate to these characters and reminisce about your experience as a teacher. I certainly did.
Radha writes rhymes to take her mind off things. She finds out about a hip hop producer in Brooklyn who can help her make a mixtape. The producer, D. believes in Radha. Even though he’s a young man of few words he thinks Radha has more talent than the younger rappers who come to his studio to rhyme about nothing and smoke weed all day. Radha and D. eventually get closer. He’s one of the few people who really understands her.
There are scenes that reminded me of the type of cinematography famed, Brooklyn filmmaker Spike Lee creates. It is artistic, cultural, and one where there are a chorus of static characters who speak to the main character in short clips, giving their advice. Although this is a Hillman Grad Productions (Lena Waithe) film, you see aspects of Black filmmaking that connects Lee’s style with Waithe’s. The music, realistic portrayals of various characters, and city life that is shown carry similarities between the two filmmakers. Think Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and “Mo Betta Blues.” The film connects culture and history when it shows photos of Radha’s real life parents and their art. Radha’s father was a jazz musician. Her mother was an artist. You feel the love and artistic legacy Radha’s parents left for her. Radha’s brother Ravi also makes an appearance toward the end of the film as himself. He offers words of encouragement for her when she is feeling doubtful.
In the end, Radha gets her due during opening night of her play. She makes a statement that it wasn’t the work she set out to create. The play watchers are shocked. Radha leaves the theater in her cute black jacket and tutu skirt, unphased. Exactly how it should be.
The film made me reflect about my own life as an artist. The years of my early start as a Brooklyn-based poet, performance artist, and teacher. I taught in public schools in New York City while also living as an artist. I performed my poetry on many stages, worked with musicians, acted in a play and a short film, and often collaborated with other artists. I met the brilliant Radha Blank in 2014 at a Harlem event. I featured her at one of my performance events in Brooklyn later that year. Now six years later, it’s exciting to see some of the wonderful work I had previously seen Radha perform, in her film “The 40-Year Old Version.” If Radha’s film has life lessons for the audience, they are to not sell yourself short at any age and also never give up.
Have you seen “The 40-Year Old Version” on Netflix? What are your thoughts? Comment below or tweet me @duewafrazier1 on Twitter. Visit my website at www.duewaworld.com.