Radha Blank’s face is about to adorn a lot of Netflix accounts. Like, 193 million of them. ‘The term “double-edged sword” comes to mind,’ says the New York playwright-turned-filmmaker. ‘I’m wondering: When the world opens up again, am I going to be able to ride the train again? And I love taking the subway. I’m thinking: I wanted this and yet it feels crazy.’ On Friday at exactly midnight LA time, her debut film ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’ will land on the streaming site globally and her mentions will probably catch fire. ‘It also means hearing from people whose opinion maybe I don’t value and who have very negative things to say about the film,’ she says.
There shouldn’t be too many. The Harlem native’s comedy is super-sassy, sharply funny and very pointed – about race, gentrification, cultural gatekeepers, grief, and that weird sound your knees make when you hit 40. She wrote it, directs, produces and stars in a very nearly autobiographical role as a playwright who reinvents herself as a rapper called Radhamus Prime (sample track: ‘White Man with a Black Woman’s Butt’) as she deals with attempts to water down her latest play.
On the set of ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’
Blank is an overnight success story years in the making – except she isn’t. Not exactly. She has already had a taste of the limelight. She’s debuted well-received plays off-Broadway (well, mostly: ‘My first review in Time Out New York was a little lukewarm,’ she laughs) and more recently wrote for the telly spin-off of Spike Lee’s ‘She’s Gotta Have It’. But the early momentum flagged and her thirties didn’t bring the success she’d hoped for. ‘I had a play called “Seed” almost ten years ago,’ she says, ‘which was a brilliant moment for me as a playwright. I did think that things would go different for my career.’
Tired of waiting for opportunities, she channelled her frustrations into writing ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’, a life-imitating-art-imitating-life story shot through with all the creative compromise you’d expect from a black-and-white, Cassavetes-riffing, Judd Apatow-title-stealing hip hop comedy – ie none at all. ‘Artists of colour are always encouraged to write universally so that more people have a way in,’ says Blank, ‘but the truer you are to your voice the more original the work will be.’ Netflix thought so too and bought it after some rave Sundance reviews.
If she has one regret, it’s that the pandemic has robbed the film of its theatrical run (although it is showing in some London cinemas). ‘You don’t shoot on 35mm for people to watch on their iPhones – or necessarily at home,’ she says,‘but I have family around the world and for them, the platform becomes a kind of digital art-house cinema.’ Having her face on our TVs, well, she can take or leave it. But having her story told means the world. ‘I wanted the film to be shared with a broad audience,’ she says. Mission accomplished.
‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’ is in cinemas now and on Netflix from Oct 9.