Audiences can’t help but root for the underdog, and that’s exactly what writer-director-actor Radha Blank’s black-and-white directorial debut “The Forty-Year-Old Version” gives them. The film posits that there are no age restrictions to career advancement, and it’s a defensible assertion: Famed artists ranging from Claude Monet to Leonard Cohen didn’t experience breakout success until they were in their 30s and 40s. That’s Blank’s narrative, onscreen and off.
“It doesn’t matter how much you put into something, no matter how old you are, because you should always expect the possibility that your effort will be undervalued,” she said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “But you can’t really take that personally. It’s just the way it is.”
In the film, which won the directing prize at the world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Blank stars as a fictionalized version of herself — a once-promising playwright nearing the age of 40, whose career has stalled, and now teaches drama to high school students, as she tries to come to terms with her own unfulfilled professional accomplishments.
There is some truth to the premise, but that’s not to say Blank hasn’t experienced success before. The film, which began as a web series, was indeed inspired by Blank’s experience as a playwright and rapper in Harlem. Like the character, she did receive some solid notices for her Off-Broadway work almost a decade ago. “Seed,” which opened in Harlem in 2011 and followed a jaded social worker; in its wake, she lost her mother and struggled to make sense of her career ambition. All of that makes it into her movie.
But Blank didn’t go totally dormant during that time. She has also written for hit television series such as Fox’s “Empire” and Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” and those paychecks yielded a far more stable professional life than the fictionalized character in her directorial debut. “TV is nice and lucrative, because I was able to buy myself a house without the debt,” she said.
But “The Forty-Year-Old Version” does represent a crucial turning point for the multi-hyphenate, who landed representation from WME and Lena Waithe as an executive producer before her Sundance premiere. “I have an arsenal of screenplays waiting for their moment,” she said. “I want people to ask me what it is I want to write for myself and I’m hoping this film positions me to do that. I left TV to work on the film and it had been my sole focus for the last year and a half. So this has to work. It has to have an impact in order for me to have a career as a filmmaker. That is what I’m hoping.”
Another aspect of her life explored in the movie is the character’s emerging work as a hip hop artist. That much is true: Just as she does in the movie, Blank has adopted the stage name RadhaMUS Prime, and invented the persona after she was fired from a screenwriting gig several years ago. And like her character, she’s still getting a handle on the form, although it’s a career move she has been eying for some time.
“I’ve been rhyming since I was about 10 years old,” Blank said. At one point in her teens, she actually thought it would be her main career ambition. “It was a fun hobby when I was a teenager, and the producers I was working with, they were predominantly men,” she said. “I do feel like hip-hop as an art form, you kind of have permission to brag, to live in a place of bravado and just kind of speak the truth in ways that we wouldn’t ordinarily do.” The RadhaMUS Prime persona eventually inspired the web series that would later become her feature-length debut.
The title of the film is obviously an appropriation of Judd Apatow’s 2005 comedy “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and like that movie, it runs upwards of two hours. Blank said she intended the title to have complex implications about popular storytelling — and, more specifically, the assimilation of Black stories. “Throughout history, people have appropriated Black culture,” she said. “Additionally, I thought, why can’t we have a self-deprecating Black protagonist of a certain age who comes to a realization of herself?'”
Blank also co-opts a long history of black-and-white love letters to New York onscreen, from Woody Allen to Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese, all of whom she credits as inspirations for the movie’s distinctive look. Cinematographer Eric Branco (who also shot Chinonye Chukwu’s “Clemency”) used 35mm film to capture the city in all its intricacies, from grimy bus stops to snobby cocktail parties. The elegance creates an ironic contrast with Blank’s rough-and-tumble existence. “It’s a film made with respect of the New York artists who inspired me, but from my point of view, which is rare,” she said. “I think digital works for some things and film for others, and I feel like film is so mouth watering. I hope that the next film I do is also on film.”
That next project is likely to continue her interest in putting her real life into the movies. Blank said she was writing a father-daughter road trip story based on a true story about her relationship with her father, with whom she has maintained a contentious relationship. “We went on this road trip and we stopped at a friend’s house, and the friend was Sun Ra,” she said, referring to the avant-garde jazz musician.
Blank may be the breakout story of 2020, but she isn’t gunning for big commercial opportunities. “There was a time when storytellers took more risks,” she said. “So I’m hoping that this film sets the tone for the kind of career I want to have, where people are not expecting me to be safe.”
While Blank’s ego often gets in the way of her career ambition in the movie, in reality, she has developed a more complex relationship to the way her work is perceived now. “It reminds me of when I used to perform and I created something that I thought was really serious and people would be laughing,” she said. “And I’m up there, in character, like, ‘What the fuck is so funny, y’all?’ But I understand that when it comes to Black audiences, there are a lot of reasons why we laugh. Sometimes it’s because we’re uncomfortable. Sometimes we laugh because something is familiar to us. I think in that moment when I was performing, what I realized was that you can have an intention, but your audience is going to receive it how they receive it.”
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is now streaming on Netflix.