Radha Blank on Her Groundbreaking Art and Love Letter, ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’

     October 9, 2020

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Radha Blank (She’s Gotta Have It) is ready to grace theaters and home screens with the release of her feature debut, The Forty-Year-Old Version. The critically acclaimed Sundance hit is loosely based on Radha’s journey of following her life’s passions, despite success in other forms, age, and criticism. The story follows Radha, a New York playwright, who desperately is looking for a breakthrough. She reemerges as rapper, RadhaMUSPrime, navigating between the worlds of theater and Hip Hop. For me, what stuck out about this black-and-white cinematic and cultural gem, was how for the first time in a while, I was able to see myself reflected onscreen. Through not only Blank’s impact as director, but also through her words as a writer and the endearing nature of her performance as the lead, it was through this prolific feat and a love letter to Black Women, New York City, and Hip Hop, that I finally saw a Black woman who was just trying to figure out life. A Black woman who bravely tackles the intersections of reinvention, love, and grief. Against all odds, she dispels the myth that Black women are monoliths and finally commands the attention & respect she deserves, as the center of her own story.

During this deeply transparent and vulnerable 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Radha Blank graciously talked about when she first fell in love with Hip Hop & film, the intentionality of telling a story about a regular Black woman, the healing this project provided, and what advice she’d not only give her younger self but younger Black girls aspiring to make their mark in this industry.

the-forty-year-old-version-posterCollider: As a nod to one of my other favorite films, Brown Sugar, I wanted to start by asking when did you first fall in love with Hip Hop?

RADHA BLANK: That’s such a good question. I had my first come to Jesus moment with Hip Hop around 13 or 14 years old. We were cleaning up at home one weekend in New York and a local public access hip hop show called Video Music Box that was hosted by Ralph McDaniels was on in the background. My mom started yelling to me that I had to come see what was on TV. A woman was rapping onscreen wearing a baseball cap turned up, and a green & blue leather jacket. She looks like she’s six feet tall and she has this commanding presence. It was Queen Latifah, but it was me. My mom kept saying it was me on TV and that was true, it was the first time I saw myself in hip hop. Although throughout the years I’ve had a complex relationship with the culture, I still love hip hop, even though I’m not always sure it loves me back.

And when did you first fall in love with film?

BLANK: In terms of film, I was raised by a cinephile. My mother is the first person who introduced me to what I would call true cinema. Jim Kelly (Enter the Dragon) was a huge black icon in our house. He was one of the first Black actors to fuse martial arts and Black culture together. My mom would always talk about some of her favorite films like Man of a Thousand Faces, and when I was old enough, she let me watch films like The Apartment and Some Like It Hot. Cinema wasn’t foreign to me, but it also wasn’t something I thought about pursuing until later because I was very intimidated when I learned about the filmmaking process. But growing up, I was deeply fascinated with that world. The Wiz is another film that still remains one of my favorites. It is an extraordinary and timeless classic that every generation of black children loves. I adore introducing it to new kids that enter my life because it’s a staple in our community. So, I can’t remember the exact moment when I fell in love with film. It has come in and out of my life and meant different things to me at different times. It’s been everything from pure entertainment to a form of escape, and then eventually a new career aspiration. It just took me a little bit longer to get to that part.

I love stories about Black women that are multilayered and show our constant growth. Since transitioning to becoming a filmmaker, was there intentionality behind making your character in The 40-Year-Old Version, Radha, a regular Black woman just trying to figure her life out? 

BLANK: That’s a great question. First, when writing and directing this film, I wanted to be as honest as I could, pulling from parts of my life where I had a lot of frustration around being an artist and desiring a different kind of breakthrough. So, I just wanted to be as authentic to my story as possible because I grew up and was raised around struggling Black artists. I knew if I was being true to my story, my own experiences, and what I witnessed coming up in this community, then I would be speaking to something real to me. I’m my first audience, and if I believe it, then it’s something I feel good about sharing with other people. I also wanted to show that Black women are still doing self- discovery. Oftentimes in television and film, Black characters, especially when they’re a certain age, usually have all the answers and have it all together. But I wanted a different type of character so I looked at films like The Watermelon Woman and Losing Ground. Stories where Black women were centered in a search for their own identity. And these aren’t 20-year-olds, these are grown women who are saying, Am I satisfied? What am I doing with my life? I just wanted to show black women in that space. And I also wanted to be deliberate about not only what the characters were saying but what happens when they don’t speak as much and I have to use a gesture, a look, a shot, a moment, or music to speak for them. I was up for that challenge, focusing on and being deliberate about crafting a contemplative black character.

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Image via Jeong Park/Netflix ©2020

Onscreen, Radha is going through the grieving process of losing her mother, and this similarly mirrors a bit of your own life, so what type of healing did working on this beautiful project provide you personally?

BLANK: I’m still in the process of healing. My mother was and always will be the most important relationship in my life, and I still need her. But the film has allowed me to celebrate her and keep her spirit alive. At the end of the movie, Radha finally gets the guts to go confront her brother. She goes to the apartment and we found a really beautiful replica of my mom’s actual apartment. In that scene with my brother, my mother’s artwork is on the wall and my father’s music is playing in the background. We’re all together and the fact that I get to have that moment with my family all on film is more than I could’ve ever dreamed of. So maybe someone who is going through a similar kind of loss will be reminded that their family is still here and that they can connect to their family through various totems at that moment. As I am still healing, when the film releases it will also be another memorial to my parents and I need to be sure to prepare myself for that as well.

Thank you so much for sharing your heart and being vulnerable about your healing and your process. So, since you and your character Radha both honor your passions and follows your heart, what advice would you give your younger self and other young Black girls about the challenges and successes that come with being a creative and staying true to your vision when developing a body of art?

BLANK: My first piece of advice is that you can’t create this work alone, you need collaborators. We as Black women and artists need people to get behind and greenlight these projects. So, my next piece of advice is to go where the love is. Don’t try to make someone who is not in love with you, fall in love with you. Just like Radha in this film, she’s focusing on this one aspect of success. And if she would just pivot her head a little bit, she’d see that her best friend, Archie (Peter KimHackers) loves her and would go to the ends of the earth to create opportunities for her. She has this young man, D (Oswin Benjamin) who sees her beauty through her voice as a rapper. And she has these students who always show up for her. So, sometimes it’s about just changing the angle of what we’re looking at to see that there is love for us and not waste any time trying to get somebody at a gate to let us in. You’re just wasting your time. Cultivate the relationships of people who already love you because when shit goes down, that’s who’s going to have your back.

The Forty-Year-Old Version is in select theaters now and streaming on Netflix on October 9th.

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