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Radha Blank Finds Her Voice Again In Netflix's 'The Forty-Year-Old Version'

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Almost 40, down on her luck, playwright Radha is looking for reinvention after grieving the loss of her mother. And in the Netflix film, "The Forty-Year-Old Version," she literally finds her voice again, rapping about her artistic and personal struggles as a middle-aged Black artist in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION")

RADHA BLANK: (As Radha, rapping) Yo, where my damn house keys? Why my lower legs hurt? Sciatica lock legs like Attica were (ph)...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Radha Blank wrote, directed and leads "The Forty-Year-Old Version" on screen. And the funny, biting satire is based on her own experiences. She joins us now. Welcome.

BLANK: Thanks for having me, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm so glad to have you. You premiered this film at Sundance and walked away from the festival with a directing award. Congratulations.

BLANK: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're not new to writing and producing, but this is the first film where you direct. And it's funny because I've seen reviews mention you as a late bloomer, which I think is the very thing...

BLANK: Boo.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...This film sends up. I mean, this is exactly about this kind of thing.

BLANK: Yeah. I mean, late bloomer - the connotation there is say, oh, you just kind of popped up on people. We didn't see you until now. And I've been telling stories for a long time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, in fact, you've called yourself one of the most known unproduced Black playwrights.

BLANK: Oh, yeah (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about your experience in the theater industry that led you to tell this story.

BLANK: Yeah, I mean, I wanted to tell stories on stage, but it wasn't enough to have that notion. I had to contend with a lot of gatekeepers and people who I think were maybe pandering to their audience and what they wanted to see from a Black play. So, yeah, it was challenging but often enriching because I had, like, a really cool community of Black actors and playwrights that I made fellowship with.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, this film is funny. It's a satire in parts. And a lot of the comedy comes from having to sort of navigate whiteness, the gatekeepers, as you call them. For example, the man in the film who's bankrolling your play says you need to add a white character, so the people who actually come to the theater can feel included. I mean, that's a reality. Audiences on Broadway are overwhelmingly white. So it becomes, you think, this feedback loop?

BLANK: Yeah, I mean, not many people can afford $175 for a ticket to see art. And so it then becomes almost like a spectacle, you know, because the people who the plays are about maybe can't afford to get in there. And so I don't know. I guess the movie is about questioning, like, what we deem is theater or worthy of resources and how with the same people at the gate, you're going to get the same kinds of work time and time again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the other source of comedy, of course, is about being an aging woman, the indignities, the invisibility, what happens when maybe the promise of youth isn't fulfilled. What were you trying to show about that journey?

BLANK: You know, different could still be new, could still be exciting, could still be an opportunity for self-discovery. I think the assumption is that when you're 40, you're not having sex. You're not sexy - and that you have maybe hit your stride. You know, even saying the promise of youth to me means that there isn't any promise outside of it, you know? And so I hope that the film just discourages that kind of limited thinking.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And one of the things that the character does is choose rapping as her next artistic endeavor. Why that?

BLANK: Why not that? For people who maybe aren't very familiar with the culture, I think rap is something people see as a career aspiration if you call yourself a rapper. I'm a rapper because hip-hop is my form of meditation. So that's how it is for the character in the film. It's not "8 Mile." She's not trying to win battles. You know, she's not going that far. It's more like two mile. She needs hip-hop to get her from Point A to Point B.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Most of the movie is shot in black and white. Tell me why you did shoot in black and white.

BLANK: For one, I just think Black, brown, Asian people just look really beautiful in black and white. And I wanted to give hip-hop a sophisticated treatment. Hip-Hop is often depicted as oversaturated and oversexualized, and I just wanted to do something that felt vulnerable, human. You know, it's easier to approach a character with just less things distracting you from who they are when they're in black and white.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is like a fantasy for many people to do what the character does at the end. Most people will take the win, the easy win. Why did you want to have the character...

BLANK: Push back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Have that - push back, yeah.

BLANK: When I was at Sundance Screenwriting Lab, I was lucky enough to have Walter Mosley as an advisor, and I didn't quite know at the time. And he said, I think the question of your film is, what is success? And it really enlivened me. And so I think what happens for the characters - she just kind of has this realization that all of these things that she has been focusing on maybe aren't the success. Maybe the success is having a best friend who will go to the ends of the Earth to create an opportunity for you, you know? The success is having your students show up every day. Success is, you know, having this young lover who sees the beauty in you when other people may have put you out to pasture. You know what I mean? So that's what that moment is about. It's like this is something that is on a silver platter and should be seen as an achievement, but the artists in there knows that doesn't feel good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you hold onto that all that time? I'm actually genuinely curious because I think a lot of people, especially a lot of Black and brown people - it's difficult to sort of be confident in your own voice, in your own experience.

BLANK: I have to say I don't quite know where it came from. There's certainly been a lot of rejection, a lot of adversity. But I would not want this moment to happen at any other time. Do I wish I had the body of a 25-year-old while this was happening? Yes, I do. But I don't regret having those experiences because it made a filmmaker out of me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You and me both on the body. Radha Blank's new movie is "The Forty-Year-Old Version." It's available on Netflix. It's gotten amazing reviews. Thank you very much.

BLANK: Thank you, Lulu. Have a good one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.