Written & Directed by: #RadhaBlank
As political upheaval and Coronavirus cases sky-rocket across the United States, writer-director Radha Blank reminds viewers that there’s still some beauty left in America with her cinematic love letter to New York City: Forty-Year-Old Version. The American Dream of middle-aged hip-hop artists, Version is a deep exploration of Harlem’s gentrification, a searing commentary on the dangers of the liberal elite, and a moving meditation on the struggles of being an artist without an outlet.
Semi-autobiographical, the film follows a partially fictionalized copy of its writer-director as she struggles to find self-acceptance on the eve of her 40th birthday. A successful playwright in her twenties, Radha has struggled over the past decade to find consistent work, and has condemned herself to teaching largely un-willing high-school students the subtleties of playwriting in order to pay off her ever-mounting bills. Discovering an outlet in hip-hop, and a reprieve from the grief she still feels after losing her mother, Radha finds herself stumbling through the world of the Harlem rap-scene. It soon becomes clear to Radha and those around her that she has a gift, but when the chance arises for her to finally step back into the spot-light of playwriting, she must decide between her new-found passion and her past calling.
A departure from the traditional sheen and idealistic filmmaking of most Netflix originals, Version is a raw, authentic approach to story-telling with astounding artistic merit. Shot on 35mm black and white film by cinematographer Eric Branco, often using lenses from the 1970s for moments of intimacy in close-quarters, this grainy texture lends grit and authenticity to the streets of New York; streets which are normally bathed in unrealistically pristine hues in cinema.
The direction (which earned Blank a Sundance Film award for best direction in a drama) is resoundingly strong and refreshingly unique in its ambitious style. The film feels heavily inspired by Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, not just in its choice of limited color palate but in the position the camera takes as an intimate onlooker to most scenes. From the backseat of a car, to across the table from our leads, the perspective given by this camera position causes watchers to feel more like an added member of the party, rather than simply an omniscient watcher on the unfolding events.
The camera work—while artistically minded and tastefully stylized—never gets in the way of our performers: instead remaining subtly un-cut, with stationary long-shots putting the audience across the table from the characters, rather than circling frantically around them. This direction allows for a far greater emphasis to be placed upon the viewers, becoming their own audience surrogate and finding themselves drawn more personally into the events of the film. Whip-pans are used to great effect, with tense rehearsal scenes having audiences snapping from one side of an arguments to the other, putting them firmly in the cramped studio-space with these actors. There are also strong echoes of Spike Lee’s sensibilities, with the flashing of contextual images across the screen to give further context to the dialogue, similar to what Lee recently experimented with in both Blackkklansman and Da 5 Bloods. These images seem to be often taken from Blank’s real life, giving more weight to the feeling of autobiography and authenticity of her piece.
The film perfectly builds-up to the first time Radha fully raps: we see her initial, faltering steps in writing and freestyling her work, not fully knowing what to expect from the final product. This uncertainty lends itself to the utter masterclass in lyricism which Radha eventually puts on for watchers, with a level of social commentary and style which draws comparison to old-school-greats like N.W.A and Wu-Tang Clan. This, paired with brief moments of fourth-wall breaking eye-contact during her set, gives the piece an air of music video flair whenever our lead begins to rap.
The script is heart-felt and gentle, not rushing through any beats (pun intended) but instead allowing the audience room to breathe within every scene. Performances match this pace, with largely subtle and honest portrayals of well-rounded characters, especially from the two supporting leads Peter Kim and newcomer Oswin Benjamin. Blank leads the line with her towering, varied and astonishingly truthful performance as her slightly fictionalized-self in the lead role. Subtle use of rhyme is also peppered throughout the script at mostly unassuming times, adding further lyricism to what is already poetic dialogue.
The only detriment to the piece is how younger characters are handled and portrayed. While Version seems to be incredibly comfortable in the subtly of its older characters, Radha’s high school students come-off as an abrasive stereotype of New York teenagers in how they abruptly and without warning seem to react in most scenes. While this is most certainly an active choice in direction (and the teenage performances are by no means bad), these characters nevertheless come off as far more shallow versions of their older counterparts.
In an interview with Movie Maker Magazine, Blank states that “…it’s been proven to me: my most valuable resource is my community”. This resource is certainly well-taped in Version, documenting and exploring the black Harlem experience of a struggling artist—something which Radha herself has lived through most of her life—in what is a moving and hugely successful work of art.