The Artist’s Way
Writer-director Radha Blank ruminates on creative frustration and rejuvenation in her debut feature, The Forty-Year-Old Version.
Karen Good Marable
Fair warning: This interview with Radha Blank isn’t business — it’s personal. Right now, like at this very moment, Radha is being introduced to the world as the writer, director, and star of the remarkable new Netflix film The Forty-Year-Old Version. But I remember Radha in the 1990s, smashing open mics at Brooklyn Moon in N.Y.C., rocking a fitted N.Y. Yankees cap and big hoop earrings. I remember her jumping into cyphers and catching wreck (read: she can dance her ass off) at Club Kilimanjaro. I remember sitting in the audience of her play Seed in 2011 and thinking, Damn, homegirl can write. I remember witnessing the rise of her emcee alter ego and one-woman show RadhaMUSprime at Joe’s Pub in 2014 and thinking, Damn, Radha can rhyme. AND she funny AF. Because Radha was (and is) a part of a close-knit artists’ community, I also recall her hustle, the keeping-the-lights-on-while-trying-to-make-your-dreams-come-true shuffle we know so well. Radha worked as a teacher, she wrote for children’s television and for shows such as Empire and She’s Gotta Have It.So when The Forty-Year-Old Version won the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance earlier this year, the community rejoiced! This wasn’t just a win for Radha, it was a win for the people. Here was a film rooted in Radha’s own story, about a woman at 40; a Black artist trying to get her stories told — as a playwright and as a rapper; a daughter grieving the death of her mother. Radha told her story her way, down to shooting the streets of New York on 35mm film in black and white. The result is a whole, liberating mood. There’s even a nod to Prince’s Purple Rain.
Karen Good Marable: First of all, Radha, congratulations! The Forty-Year-Old Version is amazing. Your success feels so much like a win for Brooklyn. A win for us all. Thank you for writing it.
Radha Blank: I really did make it for us — us being Black women, Black women of a certain age, Black women artists of a certain age. I didn’t think I’d be starting a whole new career in my 40s, but I think it speaks to what’s possible if you let go of other people’s ideas of where you should be in your life. If I listened to other people and gave credence to their ideas, I would not be here.
I feel like everything
Your mother — curator, visual artist, cinephile, and arts teacher Carol Blank — figures prominently in the film. She is a goddess and a guide, but she also represents a complicated lesson in what it means to be an artist.
RB: Oh, listen, I feel like everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned from my mother — from my frustration as an artist to being a teaching artist for so long. That’s where I learned how to be a director, honestly. I didn’t go to film school. I did stand-up comedy and all this performance stuff, and my first example was my mother. She knew how to turn a phrase or a joke to get the kids interested, and if they weren’t, she wasn’t going to push it. I learned from her first, and I tried to match her energy.
RB: The same thing happens with these artistic institutions: They find a dilapidated space, they revive it and put a million dollars into it. Then when it comes to programming, the people on the stage don’t look like the people outside of the gate. They’re thinking of their silver-haired patrons, because those people can afford a $100 ticket, and that is who I feel most of the theaters cater to. So when diversity shows up on the stage, it’s a version of diversity that protects the audience from feeling bad about racism or sexism. They can still remain in a comfortable place, so they can come back next week or next month and see something for the $300 membership.
But then you brilliantly juxtapose said institutions with the battle rap in the Bronx.
RB: I wanted to show these different hubs of art in New York. This film is about capturing an authentic New York experience, and so we shot that battle rap scene at a warehouse space at the tip-top of the Bronx. Art and culture are happening in these spaces that we’re not always focusing the camera on and that don’t have the multimillion-dollar renovation fund of a downtown theater. But this is theater. This is art.
Watch The Forty-Year-Old Version
on Netflix Now.