Film / TV

the laughter and tears of ‘the 40-year-old version’

January 31, 2020
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The 40-Year-Old Version makes you laugh, cry, laugh while you cry and cry while you laugh. Director, writer and star of film Radha Blank has used a black and white 35mm film canvas to invite us into her New York.

Quickly approaching her 40th birthday, constantly staring at her “30-under-30” trophy, and one year after losing her mother, playwright/schoolteacher Blank has to decide for herself whether life as a writer can work for a Black woman with moral values. Finding the freedom she has been searching for in rap music, a place that doesn’t corner her into rewrites that drain her creative Blackness for something more comfortable and white, Blank finds a new purpose: a quest for the truth.

The theme of the film is honesty — or the lack thereof. As the movie progresses and Blank questions her own complicity in compromising her voice for the white gaze, she finds writing raps gives her access to her own hard truths and eliminates her ability to lie. With her mother gone her sense of truth is completely distorted, and fear leads her to falsehoods. At a low point she mentions that legend says your mother visits you in a dream in your first year of losing her. Quickly approaching year two, with no dream of her mother yet, she begins to lose hope creating a domino effect in her life and sense of self worth. It is rap that saves her, as she at one point notes that, while rapping, she believes her own mother is speaking to her, through her. Maybe her mother did visit her in a dream after all.

More than just hip-hop and the community the music helps her find, it is Blank’s support system that heals her. Her brother, her best friend, and, very importantly, her students help her find her vision. Anyone who grew up in New York City or teaches its high schoolers  knows that New York students are confident, familiar, and funny in a way that keeps you up at night, cause they roast you with facts. Blank’s students are incapable of lying to her, and look up to her dearly. It forces her to confront her truth as a responsibility to these impressionable Black and brown artists who are being shaped by her. If she lies in her art to appease white audiences, then what message does that send to them?

Blank’s use of black and white to tell her story is effective. It serves as a way to communicate her state of mind without needing to explain further. Her life at the beginning of the film seems bleak: she is often late to work, her impending “big” birthday looms, and then there is the grief she is enduring. It’s not until Blank decides to work on it that we finally see her walk out of the dark and into a glimpse of color. The black and white represents a way of life the world has forced upon her. When in the studio working with Black artists she feels the need to explain herself, to prove her Blackness because her image and vernacular suggest assimilation to her. In white spaces, Blank finds herself adjusting to their tone, often defending herself but ultimately surrendering. Once she lets go of other people’s assumptions of her — and even her own — she can finally be. This peace allows her to find the light beyond just the black and white.

The 40 Year Old Version is proof that life can be lived on your own timeline, if you give yourself the permission to define it for yourself. It is okay not to be the same exact person you always were, but to allow yourself to grow into who you are today. Blank proves that as long as you trust yourself you will always be there.