Radha Blank on her autobiographical film ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version,’ race, and theater

Radha Blank on the set of “The Forty-Year-Old Version.” Photo by Jeong Park/Netflix ©2020

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” won Best Director for an American Drama at Sundance this year. Radha Blank is the star, director and producer of the film. The plot is based on her personal story — with a comedic twist.

It follows a Black playwright who was deemed a person to watch when she was in her 20s, but in her 30s, her once promising career and love life are running on empty. Instead of writing Broadway plays, she’s teaching playwriting to teenagers. So she decides to reinvent herself as a rapper.

Blank tells Press Play that making the movie was a risk. “Black woman, not a size two in the league. Nobody knows who I am. I don't have a Hollywood look. I'm in front and behind the camera. And people just were nervous. And so there were caveats like, ‘Okay, why don't you change the title? Or what about putting Tiffany Haddish in the role? What about shooting in color, and then you can change it to black later.’”

However, producer Lena Waithe invested in the project. “With Lena, she pretty much was like, ‘I see you, I value you. I'm going to help you get the money. And then I'm going to get out of your way.’ And that's what she did. She trusted me with my whole vision. And I'm grateful for it because it sets the tone for the kind of career I want to make where I'm seen as more of an author. I'm in my movie, and I'm playing a version of myself. But I don't know that this is about starting an acting career because I'm much more interested in directing film.”

Blank and 39 other playwrights were recently featured in the Los Angeles Times, talking about racism in white American theater. However, she says she didn’t make “The Forty-Year-Old Version” to talk about race and theater. “I really was just trying to tell my story and my encounters with white gatekeepers who are prioritizing the needs of their silver-haired patrons.” 

She says there’s a racial reckoning happening after the police-involved killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd — and there are no distractions from the reality for those deaths as most Americans are staying at home during the COVID pandemic. 

“The way theater had responded in this was like, almost simultaneously as my film is coming out, is there was this galvanized movement. And they call themselves ‘We See You,’ and they are calling out #wat (white American Theater). .... I didn't get a chance to sign that petition. But I have a film that does it for me.” 

Blank adds, “I don't want to participate in a theater where Black life is spectacle, and that it goes through the filter of people who are more concerned about filling the seats with their patrons than subsidizing it or diversifying it and making it available for more people.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

Credits

Guest:
Radha Blank - writer, director, producer of “The Forty-Year-Old Version”

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Angie Perrin, Michell Eloy, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Amy Ta, Rebecca Mooney