PARK CITY, Utah – The Sundance Film Festival is a showcase of new voices in cinema, and few have come through louder and clearer than Radha Blank's.
Blank wrote, directed and stars in her debut film, “The 40-Year-Old Version.” It's a heavily autobiographical tale, shot in black-and-white and on 35mm, about a middle-aged playwright in Harlem struggling to fulfill her career's earlier promise. Faced with unappealing options, like a Harriet Tubman musical put on by white producers, she turns to an old passion, hip-hop, and begins performing as RadhaMUSprime.
Blank, who has written for the series “She's Gotta Have It” (on which she was also a producer) and “Empire,” first began the project as a web series that would have culminated in a mix tape. The death of her mother derailed the series, and Blank later realized “The 40-Year-Old Version” needed a bigger canvas. Lena Waithe ("Master of None," “Queen & Slim”) came aboard as a producer.
In an interview, Blank talked about her film and her Sundance breakthrough.
AP: How would you describe your film’s connection with Judd Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”?
Blank: Honestly, I'm just like appropriating his (expletive). People appropriate black culture all the time. I’m like, “Hey, Judd. I’m comin’ for you!" I think he will have a great sense of humor about it, but I’m totally appropriating his (expletive). I love it when I say ’"40-Year-Old Version" and they go, “That move came out 15 years ago.” And I go, “Nope! V-E-R-S-I-O-N.” But also trying to stay in the spirit of Judd Apatow, black protagonists are quirky and awkward and can’t figure things out and are having identity crises at 40. I would hope one day my films can be in the canon of his storytelling. I lived in L.A. for about three years and even though I look like I might have blended into the cool arts scene, I always felt like Larry David. There are people who look like me who have those odd moments where there are clashes of culture right in front of them.
AP: What compelled you to start writing this?
Blank: I was fired from a film job. This is like before I was writing for TV. I got a job. Someone had seen a play of mine and they hired me to adapt a book. And I got fired off the job. And I was kind of devastated and felt a little powerless and just decided, you know what? (Expletive) it. I'm going to make a web series so that I'm in charge. No one can fire me. About two weeks before we were going to shoot the first two episodes, my mom passed away and it pretty much devastated my life. Like we were like Dorothy and Sophia domestically, as a viewer of “The Golden Girls.” We shared the same birthday and she's the person who nurtured all these storytelling seeds in me. I was probably going to quit anything creative because my biggest champion and friend was now gone. I was going to go back to school and become a social worker. I’m glad I didn’t. I probably saved more children by not becoming a social worker.