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The Forty-Year-Old Version’s Radha Blank on gatekeeping culture and being her own mentor

<i>The Forty-Year-Old Version</i>’s Radha Blank on gatekeeping culture and being her own mentor
Graphic: Jimmy Hasse, Photo: Rich Fury (Getty Images)
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Radha Blank had a very clear vision for the semi-autobiographical comedy The Forty-Year-Old Version. “I wanted it to be in the spirit of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, a send up of my life and that included authentic New Yorkers,” the multihyphenate told The A.V. Club over the phone. “From the people talking to camera to the young people, I really feel like they helped to reflect that kind of New York.” In the film, these small touches are more than effective: The implementation of both the straight-shooting woman-on-the-street interviews and the lively young cast heavily reflect Brooklyn’s vibrancy, whether you’ve ever set foot in Blank’s beloved borough or not.

Part of what makes Blank’s Sundance award-winning directorial debut such a success is that she was granted the space to tell the story that she always wanted to tell, thanks to co-producers who didn’t pressure her to water down her distinct narrative. Blank’s experience is far more favorable than that of her film’s fictional counterpart and namesake, who must submit to the theater world’s culture of gatekeeping in order to see her play on stage. Blank expounded on her own experience with gatekeeping, and how she overcame it, to deliver one of the most promising films of the year.

The A.V. Club: You wrote, directed, produced and starred in The Forty-Year-Old Version. Was there a specific role that you enjoyed above the others?

Radha Blank: I think the thing that was most exciting for me was directing, because I’ve not done it in this way before. I’ve played little bit parts here and there in film and television. But the directing was really exciting because it meant if things went well, that it was the start of a new career for me. Still, it was exciting to be in scenes with people like Peter Kim, Oswin Benjamin, and all the other amazing talent.

AVC: The story hits a particularly deep spot with Black creators. There’s obviously a lot that you can take away from the film, from the anxiety of pivoting to a different career to the reality of being a struggling artist. But the thing that hit hardest was the way that compromise can be such a tool of heartbreak. There isn’t a single creative industry that doesn’t have a bunch of Josh Whitmans [Reed Birney]. 

RB: That’s exactly what I’m saying. Usually, an artist can be working on something for a number of years and it’s not until the work is engaged by a gatekeeper that there’s a question as to what the work is and if it is authentic. Sometimes there are people who see the artist and say, “We just want to create a space for that that voice.” But I don’t know that there’s a lot of that kind of visibility or acceptance these days. I feel like a lot of gatekeepers are pandering to their membership and whoever is helping to keep the theaters open, so the work often is written or presented with them in mind. I’m a person who goes to see any and every kind of film. I don’t have to see myself in it, nor does the work have to affirm, for example, who Asian people are for me to see a predominantly Asian cast. But I feel like when it comes to an artist’s work getting onto a larger stage, there’s always that person in the middle who’s filtering the work and deciding whether or not that version of Blackness and Black life will work in their spaces.

It’s something I’ve experienced a number of times where I’ve sat down with some very well-meaning liberal white gatekeepers who love my work, but they ask, “What else you got?” That was what was soul-crushing. I put my everything into this play and you say that it’s a wonderful work of art, but you want to know what else I have? I think they’re just trying to find work that is palatable for their patrons.

AVC: There’s a moment after Radha agrees to do the production of Harlem Ave. with Whitman where he says that she has to give the audience “a way in” as an excuse to add a white character. That idea has been peddled quite a bit in the theater world and has at times been framed as a building block for successful shows. How did you overcome that gatekeeping mentality in order to get work that’s this honest?

RB: It’s been such an interesting journey. I think the key for me, though, was taking the story back, so to speak. I was writing my first work for hire for a producer who was not a white man. I got fired off that job and I was so frustrated because I felt like I had been given this ability, something that was cultivated in me over the years. My mom was the person who planted the seed of storytelling in me, and I felt like I was born to do this. But the thing that I was creating was not being lifted or accepted, so I created a web series. The Forty-Year-Old Version started as a 10-episode web series. The idea here was, if I write, direct, produce, and star in it, then I can’t get fired. I have to make something that is mine instead of waiting for people—some who look like me and some who don’t—to validate my work and flag me into the gate. But the seeds came out of this adversity, this frustration of getting fired or not feeling seen or validated.

The script got into the screenwriters lab at Sundance. I remember sharing it with a friend of mine, Franklin Leonard. I wanted to share it with someone who was outside of my really small circle of writer friends, and he tells the story of reading it on the plane and laughing out loud. That’s what affirmed for me that I needed to keep going on this independent track because it let me find the people who are going to embrace the story as is. And it took a while to find that, but I found it in Lena Waithe, who I’d known for years. She didn’t ask me to compromise one thing. It is not easy to find those people, but I liken it to finding a life partner: You’re gonna kiss a lot of frogs, there are going to be some people who like your height but not your weight, who are kind of annoyed with the headwrap, whatever. You just have to find someone who embraces you where you are, and that’s what I found in Lena. She not only helped me get the money for the film; she gave me the best gift by getting the fuck out my way. I could be as I am and have the film how I intended it to be and it be good enough. It’s not easy finding that as a Black creative, but it actually is closer than people realize. Lena has been in my life [since I was] a TV writer for six or seven years in L.A. I just had to say yes to a friend.

My message in all of that is, go where the love is. Stop trying to make the gatekeepers love you. Do like Issa Rae or Jill Scott and cultivate that smaller local audience, create a buzz there, and have people come to you. I wasn’t trying to break through Hollywood. I was just trying to create this thing over here to the side, and then Netflix came.

AVC: Since The Forty-Year-Old Version was somewhat autobiographical, which scene was the most therapeutic or cathartic for you to perform?

RB: It’s a tie between D and Radha freestyling about their moms—that feeling is something I felt a lot, just trying to understand who I can be without my mother when she was the most important person in my life—and the scene towards the end of the film when Radha finally goes to her mom’s apartment and engages with her brother. Because that’s my brother. That’s my mother’s artwork and that’s my father’s jazz. And we’re all in the same room together. So that’s the scene that means the most to me because it is an archive of our lives as artists in one room, even though they aren’t here physically.

AVC: That’s such a deeply personal moment to share. What empowered you to include something so personal in something that was going to be spread to millions? 

RB: I’m playing a version of myself, and I felt like there was nothing more authentic than this brother and sister trying to make sense of their mother’s legacy as an artist after her death. It took me a very long time to put my mother’s artwork up even when she was living, because I didn’t want to be reminded of what she could have been. But that was also me being very limited in my thinking around what it meant to be a successful artist. I think in this case, part of her success is that she was able to give birth to more artists. I feel like one of the best things I could have done was to make the movie and bring more people into my mom’s artwork.

AVC: Hopefully this film is the first of many. In terms of your creative process, what new lessons will take into the next project?

RB: It takes a lot of stamina to be a filmmaker. You can’t make a film alone, there’s no way. But you really are holding all the pieces together. If you’re fortunate enough to get a film acquired, then you have to be present for the launching of your film. It’s a lot of work that I was not prepared to do, but it is a necessary companion in getting it out to the world. I think this was the biggest, most rebellious act of self-love I could have done, and I’m a person who struggled with that over the years. But to have to defend the film and kind of stand by these decisions at times it was very scary. I’m just so glad that I trusted myself.

There is a voice that I call that my best mentor, because for so many years I was looking for someone to take me under their wing and mentor me. I wasted a lot of good time waiting for this affirmation when the person who knew what I wanted and needed most was myself. That’s what’s going to keep your vision unique. The minute you start doubting yourself and letting other people’s limited view of who you are and what you can say get in the way, you’ve muddled your story. I’m walking into the next film with this opportunity to work with bigger stars and bigger budgets. And there’s a part of me that says, “You don’t have to do that to get here. Why do that now?” So my job, honestly, is to not change and to keep that voice.