Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 2020. Hillman Grad. Screenplay by Radha Blank. Cinematography by Eric Branco. Produced by Inuka Bacote-Capiga, Radha Blank, Jordan Fudge, Rishi Rajani, Jennifer Semler, Lena Waithe. Music by Guy C. Routte. Production Design by Valeria De Felice. Costume Design by Sarah Williams. Film Editing by Robert Grigsby Wilson.
Radha Blank makes her feature directorial debut with this deliciously funny look at a fictionalized version of herself, trying to hold on to her artistry in the New York theatre world while also trying to make sure she always has enough money for rent. Her playwriting once saw her named one of the Top Thirty Under 30, now she’s approaching forty and can’t get a script produced by a notable theatre and supports herself teaching drama to a group of students who have no use for her wisdom. Her agent and longtime best friend Archie (Peter Kim) sets her up with a big-time producer (Reed Birney) who is interested in her script about Harlem’s gentrification, but he convinces her that the script needs a lot of changes to make it more commercial for the New York theatre crowd (i.e. to sell a black story you need a white perspective). She sees it as her one chance to get out of her current slump and agrees to go ahead with his ideas, but the conflict she feels and is not acknowledging comes out in the form of her pursuing another interest that becomes her focus. She decides to try her hand at being a hip-hop artist, pursuing the help of D (Oswin Benjamin), a musical artist who she asks to create rhythms for her against which she can perform the verses she composes as her rapping alter ego RadhaMUSPrime. Her first steps into musical performing are uncomfortable to say the least, while her play’s smooth ride to success alienates the work away from her intentions, both providing scenes that are shockingly awkward and funny. Blank has a lot of important things to say in this piece, about race, class and opportunities in the art world, and says them all in a charmingly messy manner, the film is a tad too long but it is somehow its strength and not its weakness, and she sublimates her themes into a feeling of spontaneity so that the message is received without ever feeling like a lecture. Her portrayal of a theatre scene run by moneyed whites whose concern for amplifying black voices can only come out in a patronizing manner feels accurate to a painful degree, the observations landing well enough to excuse some of the caricatures (like the white, old lady audience members) who are not as effectively lived-in as the love story she develops with Benjamin or her wickedly smart and bright students. As the film’s star, Blank is herself a wonderful central figure, there’s a sense that she’s a bit raw and unstudied as an actor that makes her that much more perfect as the glowing centre of all the anxious and exciting energy surrounding her, she never comes across as disingenuous or falsely modest and her self-effacing humour is always a rewarding indulgence.