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Image of a person standing in front of a large film camera on a film set. They wear a jean jacket and headscarf as they look at the camera.

Issue 001 Fall 2020 Interviews Profiles

Defying the Note: an interview with Radha Blank

by Niela Orr

Radha Blank behind the scenes. Courtesy of Netflix.

It’s somewhat fitting that the first version of my conversation with Radha Blank was lost to the conundrums of an internet conference call company, since the artist’s latest work, The Forty-Year-Old Version, is about the experience of losing and reclaiming time.

The film, which recently premiered on Netflix, concerns the life of a character named Radha, a forty-something New York City playwright waiting for—and working exigently to engineer—her big break. Caught in what Blank once identified as a slightly awkward time for creatives, somewhere in the threshold between what the industry considers the “auteur” and “prodigy” stages, her protagonist works as an after-school writing teacher while she navigates New York’s theater scene and, eventually, one of its hip hop communities.

Stunningly shot in black-and-white, the film joins a class of other New York City stories with that iconic color scheme, among them Manhattan (1979), Stranger Than Paradise (1984), and She’s Gotta Have It (1986). In Blank’s hands, the palette is an invitation to explore liminality; what, in other words, is there in the break between the extremes of black-and-white, between rigid artistic classifications? Between mediums, between stages of life, between relative anonymity and the other side of recognition? Reminiscent of Hollywood Shuffle (1987), Robert Townsend’s foundational satire, the film employs humor to address white gatekeepers’ expectations of Black creativity. Further, the film is interested in the disparity in treatment Black women creators face. It’s interested in the way that Black women creatives are historicized. The title might also read as a more intricate reference to Townsend’s thirty-three-year-old classic; almost four decades removed from that film’s conception, production, and release, and the experiences that inspired it, Black entertainers are experiencing similar challenges—new versions of the same story.

Blank should know; she’s a veteran of the theater and television industries. She’s written several critically acclaimed plays, and was a writer on Fox’s Empire and Netflix’s The Get Down and She’s Gotta Have It series, on which she also served as a producer. Her viral hit “Hoteps Hoteppin’” (2016) indicated not only her wit and humor as an emcee but also her adept ability to skewer ridiculous tropes. The Forty-Year-Old Version started as a piece of theater circa 2013 with a similar name and the tagline “Woody Allen meets Ghost Face Killer [sic].” Through the experiences of the Radha character and her associates—her best friend Archie (Peter Y. Kim), her producer D (Oswin Benjamin), and even her students—the film freshly sends up contemporary theater and hip hop motifs in surprising and hilarious ways.

Still from "The Forty-Year-Old Version" is a black and white image of a person with a tied headscarf and large purse. They stand outside in front of a tall building ad look at something off-screen.
The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) film still courtesy of Netflix.

The Forty-Year-Old Version feels like an artistic culmination of Blank’s experiences within and observations of the entertainment industry. I don’t say that to conflate the artist’s work with her personal life. Rather than the autofiction characteristic of contemporary novels, or even the uncritical, solipsistic-if-pretty auteurism of Manhattan, or the insular Lower East Side hipsterism of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, or the anything-goes freestyle of Downtown 81 (2000), which was a cameo parade of the scene’s famous participants, The Forty-Year-Old Version is closer to the philosophical, existential searching of Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground (1982). Call it auto-frisson, an exciting auteurist work by and about Black women navigating the tensions of an industry, using their incredible creativity and resourcefulness to productively chafe against the friction of what can be an extremely cloistered and limited industry. The Forty-Year-Old Version is alive with “ecstatic experiences,” to quote Sara, Collins’s protagonist. It’s thrilling to watch them unfold.

This version of our conversation was also conducted over the internet, in Google Docs; in light of the initial trouble I had recording our conversation for posterity, ironically Google, which is sometimes a fraught place for exploring Blackness, felt like a site of safekeeping. While watching The Forty-Year-Old Version, I kept thinking about Blank’s interest in historicity and legacy, the safekeeping of the work that we do.

I wanted the audience to get a sense of New York through its people over the landscapes. You can visit New York and see these landscapes yourself, but will you get a sense of the people? The real New York characters? I wanted the film to celebrate New York through its most precious asset: the people.

Niela Orr: You’ve written music, plays, and TV scripts. What made film the best vehicle for the ideas explored in The Forty-Year-Old Version?

Radha Blank: I didn’t actually sit down and decide, I’m going to tell this idea on film. It evolved into that, starting as a web series. After getting fired off my first big job as a screenwriter, I was frustrated, looking for something where I had more control. I decided to create a web series. I wrote ten short-form episodes and then created a mix-tape of songs connected to the narrative of the series. I’d made some of my own beats on Garageband. The idea was you’d watch the entire series and then get to download the mixtape afterward. I’d shared it with my mother, who was often my first audience, and she loved it—cracked up laughing, which told me I was onto something. My mom was the funniest person I knew.

We were about to shoot the first two episodes of the series as a crowdsourcing strategy to fund the back eight episodes. But a week or so away from the shoot, my mom passed away. And it devastated my entire world. My mother was my biggest champion. She planted the seed in me that I would be a great writer one day, and now she was gone. I didn’t feel there was a point to making art if my biggest advocate was gone, so I toyed with the idea of quitting and becoming a social worker. (But I probably saved more children by not becoming a social worker.)

After months of grieving my mother’s death, performance artist Daniel Alexander Jones invited me to perform one of my solo shows at JACK, a performance space in Brooklyn. I was itching to perform again but asked if I might do something different. He was game. So I just took all the music I created for the mixtape and performed it live, with some self-deprecating stories and jokes peppered in (I did stand-up for six years, so it wasn’t foreign to me). I called the show RadhaMUSprime: the 40-Year-Old Version, a Mixtape. It was cabaret but hip hop. A live mixtape, if you will. About approaching forty. About failure. About my penchant for younger men—aka, being a panther, not a cougar (’cause I’m Black). And it was about loss. The aim of the show was to get through the grief of losing my mom and the fear of aging. I had no idea people would be sparked by it. Especially women. So I kept doing it. All over. Joe’s Pub, and even Norway. When I got back and picked up the web series again, it felt too pedestrian. So I rewrote it as a TV pilot. But who would cast an unknown as the lead of a TV show? So I decided the only way to make it would be to do it independently. It would be a feature. In black-and-white in homage to all the classic black-and-white New York films that raised me. And that is how the movie came to be. It’s become the place where all of my voices and identities as an artist have come together.

NO: You’ve said that New York City informs your way of telling stories. Can you say more about that?

RB: The city is a living breathing organism with a different kind of life coming out depending on what part of the city you’re in. The subway: I mean, it’s high art to me. The way folks interact and smoosh into each other there. Even on a not-so-kind vibe. I love the city. And even the defiant nature of a segment of its culture vying to survive the newbies bent on sucking it dry. From childhood I’d see all these interactions. I lived in Williamsburg as a child, and to see the cultural groups try to share a block [was a testament to] the inside-outside nature of it all: Hasids, Puerto Rican biker gangs, Black artists, all navigating this shared space. And then the spaces where people look alike but act differently, and the question of whether or not there is an obligation to be in community together, to share the same views simply because we share the same views. It shows up a lot in my work. I will keep coming back to New York, because no matter how frustrated I am with how much it’s changed or is changing, no place else gets me as riled up. And that frustration, that anger, and that passion leads to good storytelling.

NO: I loved the series of interiors in the film: the recording studio, the bus, school, parties, and the Radha character’s navigation of them. In her positionality in the frame, I read a sense of claustrophobia, and of her desire to finally break through professionally, and even in a smaller sense, to get out of the house and enjoy herself socially. How did you balance interiors with expressing the character of New York City’s neighborhoods?

RB: I wanted the audience to get a sense of New York through its people over the landscapes. You can visit New York and see these landscapes yourself, but will you get a sense of the people? The real New York characters? I wanted the film to celebrate New York through its most precious asset: the people.

NO: You’ve said that you’ve always wanted to shoot a black-and-white film, both because of its aesthetic beauty and to add Black films into the canon of works that employ that very auteurist-cool color scheme. Can you say more about that?

RB: My mom was a cinephile, and I was raised on black-and-white film, so it’s not so foreign a format to me. I find it aesthetically pleasing. But I was being quite deliberate when shooting on 35-mm black-and-white film. When I wrote it as a web series, I thought I’d shoot it in color and on a digital format. But once I decided to make it a film, it was always conceived as a black-and-white. And my doing that was about paying homage to the classic New York films, from The Apartment to Manhattan to She’s Gotta Have It. But shooting this contemporary film was also about retrofitting The Forty-Year-Old Version into the canon of New York films as if to say, This story should’ve been told decades ago. My DP, Eric Branco, was just as excited about the idea; he lugged all of these books of New York photography from LA. And we devoured them. But the photographer who inspired the final look of the film was Roy DeCarava. His capture of Black skin tones in black-and-white was sumptuous. And while the initial print looked more monochromatic, I worked with Nat Jencks at Goldcrest in New York to bring the film into those richer silver and gray tones. Monochromatic works great for a photograph, but for a moving picture it can be harsh on the eye—and even harsher on characters with skin shades of brown—but playing in that gray is what makes those diverse browns look so juicy.

NO: There’s so much romance attached to the idea of physical film: the way it captures color, the warmth of the image. But it’s also expensive. What informed your decision to shoot on film?

RB: Again, I was being deliberate in wanting to make it feel like a classic film. I kinda like the urgency that film presents when shooting. Digital means you can shoot it over and over again. With film, with a four-minute can, you better get it in! You also can’t hide much with black-and-white. The performances are front and center. I mean, I also felt the urge to counter what we’re used to seeing. Black folk, hip hop culture in general, is often projected through an oversaturated lens—lots of color and flash-and-dash. But when you strip that from a film, the characters can really feel more vulnerable and bare. I just wanted to depict the culture and people from that world through a more sophisticated lens, a more vulnerable lens.

NO: Your rap name, RadhaMUSprime is a nod to a Transformer. That word— transformer—might also describe you; you are a screenwriter, a playwright, an actor, and a rapper. How do you negotiate all of those identities, and how do they complement each other?

RB: I’ve been a writer and performer for some time now, so carving out space for each side of me comes naturally. Each part knows when it’s time to take over and lead from that set of skills. I’ve also learned to not “try” to make something fit where it doesn’t, allowing things to manifest as deemed fit. If something feels like a film, I let it be. If something feels like performance, I let that be. It’s become more like spiritual practice now—me trusting that whatever ideas I have will manifest into whichever format is best suited for the idea.

NO: What’s it like working as a creative when it seems like IP and remakes are all people want, in both the film and theater worlds?

RB: I think mining established IPs and doing remakes are safe, as opposed to taking the leap with a new artist and voice. They’re a sure bet for the industry, which used to operate more from the development angle. But now box office is king in mainstream movie-making, which is in contrast to independent filmmaking.

NO: You’ve likened the infrastructure of Hollywood to a machine, and said that writers should protect their “special sacred stories” from that apparatus. How did you protect yours?

RB: I worked in writing rooms but made sure to separate my good ideas for my work from the good ideas for their shows. And I’ve developed a trust with a few writers who I share my work with for feedback. So it’s a process of protection and fortifying these ideas.

The aim of the show was to get through the grief of losing my mom and the fear of aging. I had no idea people would be sparked by it. Especially women. So I kept doing it.

NO: The film shows the importance of mentorship—whether it’s between the Radha character and her students or D and Radha. Who are your mentors?

RB: I’ve not met all of my mentors, but they still motivate and inspire me. Queen Latifah, Toni Morrison, Sidney Lumet, John Cassavetes, Hal Ashby, Kathleen Collins, Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, and many more. They haven’t personally mentored me, but their work has. People often wait for a mentor to choose them, deem them worthy of their guidance, but no one knows better than the artist what is needed. So I get to choose whose work ignites me. And I let the work mentor me. People are flawed, but the work that ignites you is gold. One can access that gold at any time, whereas people are often unavailable.

A black and white behind the scenes photo of a movie set shows a person wearing a headscarf and touching the window of a building. Behind them, a camera operator stands with a camera perched on their shoulder.
Radha Blank behind the scenes. Courtesy of Netflix.

NO: In the film, you show the power of workshops, or small groups of artists working and critiquing each other: listening sessions at D’s apartment, the freestyle cypher, the showcase, the classroom. The Forty-Year-Old Version was partly developed through Sundance Labs. What’s been the importance of that workshop model in your development as an artist?

RB: At Sundance I got mentored by some of the best in the business. The labs also acted as a major validation from an institution known for supporting artists with a trajectory. But the thing that experience gifted me was fellowship. I feel like I’ve formed a lifelong bond with the Sundance fellows I shared labs with. We get to go down this road of making our first and early films together. It is a unique experience. It can be tough at times gaining the confidence to stand by your ideas, especially with a crew watching you sometimes win but also fail. Knowing that there’s someone just a call away who has gone through this unique experience and who can give you honest notes and who is invested in your success and survival as it mirrors their own journey—this is the sauce.

But a workshop model was actually a part of my grooming many years before. I was a part of a weekly screenwriters workshop taught by Fred Hudson. It was my first foray into film writing. I was nineteen, and I was pretty terrible. And as I matured, I connected with artists in Harlem who created their own workshop. Everyone aspired to work in film and TV. None of us came through academia—we just had the urge to tell stories. And we’d meet up every Sunday in this large prewar apartment, and the aspiring directors would direct the scenes of the aspiring writers, who wrote scenes performed by the aspiring actors. We were so young and hungry and most importantly honest with each other. Critique can sting. But it’s the only way to get better, to really learn what you’re making. Workshops ultimately and more importantly are a chance to learn and grow your voice. This is your first audience. If a group of people you trust gives you notes on something but there’s one note you reject because deep down you know what the work needs, then that means you are carving out your voice up against the tenor of others. We can’t be afraid to receive criticism. More importantly, you can’t be afraid to defy the note and trust the voice in your work.