Photo Credit: Jeong Park for Netflix
How Radha Blank Turned Her Career Struggles Into The Year's Best Comedy
We talked with Radha Blank, the director of Netflix's The 40-Year-Old-Version, about what it looks like for a Black woman to confront her very own mid-life existential crisis.
Not unlike many of us, Radha Blank has jumped on the plant mom bandwagon. During our Zoom interview, a quaint snake plant provided what she referred to as a “façade of greenery.” She admits that she is slow to the game; she's adding one plant at a time to her collection. “I like snake plants because they survive my rotten green thumb,” Blank said. She’s working on honing her practice of plant care, with her biggest inspiration being Baltimore’s own Hilton Carter and his book Wild Interiors. “He’s only like 32-years-old, but he is like the professor of green. He’s amazing.” [Editors note: Hilton Carter is 40.]
Age is a prominent topic for Blank. She’s not immune to the arbitrary timelines we have a tendency of placing on ourselves to have it all “figured out” by a certain time in our life. In her feature directorial debut The 40-Year-Old-Version, which is being released by Netflix on Friday (October 9) Radha Blank explores what it looks like for a Black woman to confront her very own mid-life existential crisis. A subject matter most reserved for white men in film and cinema, Blank tackles this terrain with a renewed perspective, through a theme of reclamation of not only her power, but also her voice, creativity, and Harlem neighborhood.
In the film, Blank plays herself, Radha, a character who was a rising star, named as a top 30 under 30 playwright and considered to have imminent success in her career as a writer. Until she didn’t. Twelve years later, Radha is quickly approaching 40 and has essentially fallen off the radar of her peers in New York City’s theatre world. As a day job, she’s chosen to teach drama to a group of exuberant high school kids. On the side, she works with a small ragtag local theatre who she believes she shares stronger values of community and artistic vision with (she ultimately realizes this is the furthest thing from the truth.) Her down and out status in life, coupled with the recent loss of her mother, has Radha spiraling between a place of frustration and pain. A place her agent Archie (Peter Kim) could only be described as “Sofia [from The Color Purple] post lockdown.”
Photo Credit: Jeong Park for Netflix
Archie has also been Radha's best friend since they were both 14-years-old. Sticking with her through the deep lows of her career, he has finally convinced big-shot theatre producer Josh Whitman (Reed Birney) to take a gamble on Radha and produce her play, Harlem Ave. Radha, however, is skeptical of the partnership and Whitman’s capability to understand her work. He soon proves her right. One night, he tells Radha her play, about a Black couple in Harlem trying to save the grocery store they own from gentrification, rings inauthentic because it shies away from the darkness of Black life, which he believes must include at least some gun violence or mention of drug addiction. After a tragic fail of a performance at an open mic night, Radha agrees to work with Whitman, but struggles with feelings of being a sellout.
The film is an autobiographical comedy, mirroring Blank’s very real experience of being irritated with waiting to be deemed worthy as a fit storyteller. She started out in children’s television — writing for the computer-animated Nickelodeon series The Backyardigans — and found it difficult to transition into adult material. She finally landed her first screenwriting job; her first two drafts were beloved by executives, but her third draft not so much.
“Because it was my first screenwriting job and people don’t really tell you that being fired is part of the process, I was devastated,” Blank said about the experience.
Instead of waiting around for the industry gatekeepers to extend her another opportunity, she set out to create a web series, which was the first iteration of The 40-Year-Old Version.
“I said I’m just going to write, direct, and star in something and this way I can’t get fired. I’ll be the person in control. I developed ten episodes," Blank said. "Around the time I was going to shoot my mom passed away and that is when my whole life changed and the story kind of pivoted.”
In an effort to cope with the pain of her mother’s passing, Blank started performing as a hip-hop artist by the name of RadhamMUSPrime, which is a journey she shares with her character Radha in the film.
“My character is not trying to be a hip-hop star," Blank said. "People may want to compare [the film] to 8 Mile, but the movie is more like 2 Mile."
Photo Credit: Jeong Park for Netflix
What makes The 40-Year-Old Version stand out — and much different from 8 Mile — is that there's a love story at the center. When Radha announces to Archie that she plans on making a mixtape, she travels out to Brooklyn to meet with a producer she found on Instagram, D (Oswin Benjamin). In her mind, his beats are the perfect blend of the old-school hip-hop vibes she wants to accentuate her lyrics about the perils of the white gaze and the theatre industry’s obsession with poverty porn and eroticism of Black trauma. D, a man of few words, cares nothing about this thesis laden idea. He’s there to make the beats. But as soon as he hears what she has to say, while she’s rapping in the booth, he immediately becomes invested.
“I’ve never written a romance before, that’s not really my wheelhouse. It had to show up in a way that was authentic to me," Blank said. "I wanted to salute that Black man who does not get enough credit, and who in the mainstream and on the surface isn’t considered a lover.”
Blank explains that D isn’t the type of man to say, "You look beautiful." Instead, he’ll say, "Ain’t nothing wrong with you." He won’t say, "I believe in you," but instead will say "Just come on. Trust me, this is what you need right now,"which is a line D says to Radha before dragging her to the Bronx to witness a Queen of the Ring battle. It’s another way hip-hop shows up for Radha in the film when she needs it. The scene is special and intimate. It’s inspired by documentary filmmaking — showing up wherever the story unfolds. And the audience is a front and center to some of Blank’s favorite New York City rappers, like Babs (from Making the Band), Ms. Fit, Shooney Da Rapper, Miss Undastood, and Norma Bayts.
“D, as a character, is me paying homage to all of the men — and some women — because I’m queer, who I think wasn’t evolved enough to love," Blank said. "I had very limited ideas around what it is to be a romantic partner.”
The film contains two love stories: One between her and D — who represents hip-hop, Brooklyn and her heart — and the other between her and Archie, who represents practicality, parental guidance, and her head.
“There’s this black woman that is vacillating between these two New York institutions of theatre and Hip Hop to find her voice," Blank said. "But she’s also vacillating between two people...The character, like most women I know, is getting her needs met from two different types of people.”
During the editing process, a partner on the film wasn’t sure it would be clear to audiences that a romance would brew from Radha and D’s first interaction. Although they were invested in the project, they weren’t familiar with the many ways Black people showed affection towards each other. Blank was confident in her decision. A trait she picked up from her time working with Spike Lee on his Netflix remake of She’s Gotta HaveIt — never apologize for your creative choices.
“I said, "Well you just watch because I’m about to show this to a room full of Black women and I guarantee you the second D gets up from behind his console and comes around to say, 'You need me to walk you to the train?' all the Black women are going to be like, ‘Oh yeah they fucking," Blank said. "Because That’s how it happens between us.”
Blank doesn’t shy away from contemplative moments, simple silence, and unspoken connections between her characters, a factor that contributes to the film’s run time of over two hours. It wasn’t her intention. The script was just a little over a hundred pages, but in order to properly confront New York City as a character, she didn’t want the film to feel sparse.
“For me, it’s about capturing my version of New York," Blank said. "There’s no better way to capture New York than in black and white. I knew that shooting in black and white would make the characters from the Hip Hop world feel a little more nuanced.”
Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, and pretty much anything Judd Apatow — her film is an appropriation of his title The 40-Year-Old Virgin — were huge influences for Blank. Another is Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. The 40-Year-Old Version and Townsend’s 1987 satirical classic both discuss being a Black creative confronting white gatekeepers and questioning who gets to tell an authentic story. When it comes to industry gatekeepers finally opening up their purview of Black artistic expression to things outside of Black trauma, Blank doesn’t want to give up on anybody. But to truly make ground in creative spaces, Blank affirms the best course of action is to empower ourselves, embrace a DIY ethos, and cherish the audiences we develop.
“I think it is a balance of holding the gatekeepers accountable and expecting more from them," Blank said. "[You have to give] them an opportunity to learn where they can get better, while simultaneously nurturing and cultivating our own outlets — valuing them and not poo pooing on them if they are not perfect.”
Again mirroring Blank’s own journey, at the end of the film, Radha discovers only she could deem herself worthy and authentic as a storyteller. Not only is she the 40-year-old version, but she also finds her own voice by funding her own vision.
“I used to proudly claim myself as a bitter playwright, but if I didn’t go through that I wouldn’t have this story to tell," Blank said. "I don’t wish anything was different.”
Morgan Grain is an LA-based writer and producer with southern Atlanta roots whose work focuses on black women’s contribution to entertainment, media, visual arts and culture.