In 2019 when a long-awaited biopic of Harriet Tubman was finally released, the movie’s co-screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard revealed that at one point during the 26 years (26 years!) the film languished in production purgatory, a Hollywood executive actually suggested that Julia Roberts play Tubman. “It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference,” Howard quoted the executive as saying.
That it would take nearly three decades to get a Tubman biopic made, and that a producer would suggest a white star to play her, is a testament to the ways Hollywood is out of its fucking mind when it comes to producing Black stories for a white audience, which is almost always assumed as the only audience. It’s why we still get projects like Green Book and The Help, schmaltzy stories helmed by white directors, white writers, and white producers who pat themselves on the back for investing and celebrating “diverse” stories. And it’s against the backdrop of this industry that The Forty-Year-Old Version’s creator and star Radha Blank is battling the perils of selling out in a movie that does anything but.
Debuting on Netflix this Friday, Blank’s Forty-Year-Old Version is a dry, funny comedy loosely based on Blank’s own life as a struggling playwright in New York City, single and with little recognition of her professional talents at age 40 aside from being a “30 Under 30" to watch a decade ago. Her mother, a painter who never found mainstream success, recently passed away and her brother keeps calling for her to pick up her things. By day she teaches creative writing to a group of funny teens in Harlem, who are developing their own creative voices even if they revolve around sci-fi plays about alien societies that worship genitalia. But by night, Radha is trying to schmooze with the stuffy, white theater establishment with the help of her agent and high-school best friend Archie (Peter Y. Kim.) “What do I have to do, write a slave musical, an all-white play?” Radha asks Archie, exasperated, as she holds her cellphone in one hand and politely waves off admiring, flirty students with the other. “Like WHO do I have to blow around here?” she yells.
All Radha wants is a regional production of her latest play Harlem Ave, which focuses on a Black couple in Harlem struggling to run a grocery store amid gentrification. But the producer she has to win over doesn’t think it’s raw enough. “It rang inauthentic,” he says. “I ask myself, did a Black person really write this?” But if not this, he says, he has another project for Radha. “I still need a writer for my Harriet Tubman musical!” In her frustration, Radha turns away from the theater and to her high school roots as a wannabe MC, branding herself as “Radhamus Prime” and working with a DJ named D (Oswin Benjamin.) The raps (and the name) are goofy at first, but in rap Radha finds she can create something that’s finally hers, “something that doesn’t rely on critics or gatekeepers,” she says. In front of D she even tries to explain the stories and intentions behind her raps, which blast the theater industry for trying to force her to make “poverty porn,” and stops herself: She can just make what she wants, she doesn’t need approval.
Filmed in black-and-white, at times The Forty-Year-Old Version is a searing satire of how white liberalism snakes through the entertainment industry and suffocates the work of creators like Radha even if it focuses on the theater. Eventually “Harlem Ave.” does get the producer’s backing, but not without a host of notes that begin to transform the play into something Radha never wanted it to be. Still, she plays the game with a smile on her face, even as a yoga mat-toting white woman who complains about soy milk gets inexplicably shoe-horned into her production to “personify gentrification.” When that Harriet Tubman musical comes up again, suddenly it’s an “Ida B. Wells musical,” and then a “Shirley Chisholm musical.” There are breathless asides about how absolutely wonderful a gender-swapped production of 12 Angry Men was.
But The Forty-Year-Old Version is also an honest, anxious movie about the perils of selling out and recalibrating what success actually feels like, especially in an industry that says it values your voice but only to a point. Getting a major production means giving something up, even if that something is everything integral to Radha’s vision as an artist. With its revelations about renegotiating a sense of satisfaction with one’s art, The Forty-Year-Old Version is like a delayed bildungsroman, a genre wasted on the romanticized, aimless young. In the film, Radha stares at the paintings her mother left behind and bemoans the fact that her career never took off. “Her life was more than just these paintings,” her brother points out, noting that she said they, her children, were her greatest creation. And by the time “Harlem Ave.” is finally released, a corny shadow of the original vision, the totality of Radha’s life as an artist and creative voice is worth much more than a single play.