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10 Directors to Watch: Sundance-Bound Late Bloomer Radha Blank Unleashes Inner Rapper in ‘The 40-Year-Old Version’

In 2013, writer-director-star Blank had been creating a web series when her mother, Carol, an artist and teacher, died. The series stalled. She’d written a lot of music for the show and didn’t quite know what to do with it. At the urging of friends, the Brooklyn playwright and performer dreamed up the persona RadhaMUSprime. A hip-hop cabaret was born, evolving into her feature debut “The 40-Year-Old Version.”

“I was raised by a cinephile,” says Blank, who grew up watching “everyone from Sidney Lumet to John Cassavetes to Schmoody Schmallen — because we can’t say his name anymore — to Hal Ashby and Kathleen Collins.” She shot her film in black and white on 35mm partly in homage to them. “I wanted the film to feel like a love letter to mom for sure, but a love letter to New York and also to the two arts institutions that raised me: hip-hop and theater.”

Blank had written for Fox’s “Empire,” Netflix’s “The Get Down” and “She’s Gotta Have It,” on which she also served as a producer. But it was a call from Black List founder Franklin Leonard that made her trust she had a movie. “[Franklin] told me he was on the plane when he read it and people thought something was wrong, he was laughing so loud,” she says. The script earned her a stint as a Sundance Fellow in 2017.

“It’s crazy. Earlier this year at Sundance, I was sitting with Lena Waithe and Rishi Rajani [president of Hillman Grad Prods.] in the Eccles, and she said, ‘What’s up with your film? Are you going to f-ing let me help you or what?’ All I had to say was, ‘Yes.’ And now a year later, we’ll be at Eccles showing my film.”

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