Radha Blank keeps her Sundance directing award on the mantel in her New York City home. “It’s still a little surreal to me,” she tells Variety of receiving the prize from the indie nonprofit where she’d workshopped her movie “The Forty-Year-Old Version.” “From what I understand, me and Ava [DuVernay] are the only Black women to [win].” Even more surreal has been promoting her directorial debut during a pandemic. Much like the full-circle nature of winning that trophy, Blank’s film — which follows a down-on-her-luck playwright who turns 40 and adopts the rap persona RadhaMUSPrime on the way to finding her true voice — mirrors the city’s attempt to rebound from the devastating pandemic.
Why did you set your film in New York?
That New York tale about the struggling artist, we’ve seen that, but we haven’t seen [Black people] centered in that. I wanted to, hopefully, add to the canon of classic New York films. Sometimes the film is a love letter; sometimes it’s a ‘Dear John’ letter, because John be getting on my damn nerves, but I would not be who I am without the city. I would not have the voice that I have as a playwright, an artist and a Black woman.
How does “Forty-Year-Old Version” pay homage to classic New York films?
What might be familiar is the black and white and the 35mm of it all, or just the cacophony of sounds in New York. What might be new or refreshing is just where the camera is angled. My film pays homage to those rare stories that not only center a Black woman but centers her internal journey around identity.
This film seems like a time capsule of pre-pandemic New York.
New York is definitely a poster child for resilience. Last time I saw something like this was around 9/11. I see that feeling of fellowship in the streets, but also there is this kind of dark, unspoken feeling where we all know we’re going through something. Yes, we’re all walking around with masks on, but people are moving forward with their lives in a way that I feel like only New York can. I’m really curious: How are artists going to adapt to our new world? Of course, we have to figure out what the world is first.
What’s it like to promote your film during the coronavirus?
It’s been so interesting, having shown the film at Sundance — which is such a blessing that I had six jam-packed audiences, whereas a lot of filmmakers did not get that opportunity [after film festivals were canceled or went virtual]. Nobody shoots a 35mm black-and-white film for it to end up on your iPhone. The folks at Netflix really made an exception to accommodate us [with events like a drive-in premiere at the BlackStar Film Festival], because they know that for me as a filmmaker, engaging the community is part of my activism.
You say filmmaking is your activism. How have the demonstrations against racial injustice affected your work?
I can’t stop thinking about Breonna Taylor, and how the only thing that might separate us is a couple of years and the fact that I have a film. I want to be in a place of gratitude, but try to use my voice and my platform to keep her alive and to speak to the reality [that] there’s an opportunity for me to make an independent film, have the support of Lena Waithe and get acquired by Netflix, but in the same country, we have Breonna Taylors and Sandra Blands.
Things You Didn’t Know About Radha Blank
Age: 44 Birthplace: New York I Love N.Y.: Inspired by the works of Spike Lee and John Cassavetes, Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord” and Kathleen Collins’ “Losing Ground” as well as “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” Birthday Twin: The film is dedicated to the memory of Blank’s mother, Carol, with whom she shares a Sept. 24 birth date.