We have a certain cultural script for what someone who's "still figuring it out" looks like: They're male (usually), white (almost invariably), and manage to coast through the world on a beguiling mix of charm and self-deprecation while avoiding real consequences. Over the last few years, shows like Fleabag and I May Destroy You have complicated the narrative of the not-quite-grown-up, presenting women struggling to find their places in the world. In Radha Blank's directorial debut The 40-Year-Old Version, which premiered at Sundance—where Blank won the U.S Dramatic Competition Directing Award—and was released on Netflix on October 9, the lovable-loser formula is subverted once and for all, with a 40-year-old Black woman being given the agency to strive and dream (and sometimes—necessarily—fail).
The film's protagonist, also named Radha, is a New York City-based playwright trying to establish a new identity as a rapper—and, after decades of movies about straight white guys following their artistic dreams, it comes as a breath of fresh air. This week, Vogue spoke to Blank about her perspective on quarantine, the definition of success, and the enduring (and maddening) expectation of constant gratitude for Black women in Hollywood.
What have the past few months been like for you?
I'm based between New York and Baltimore, so it has been quite the experience dealing with quarantine and losing the freedom to just walk around, be with friends, get a hug. I'm trying to take it all in stride; I'm really fortunate that even though we're in these crazy times, I'm still able to get my work out there on Netflix's platform, so I'm straddling between the frustration we're all dealing with and feeling a sense of gratitude that this hasn't stopped my work from reaching its audience. It makes me feel for all the filmmakers who didn't get that chance at Sundance this year, or maybe didn't get to showcase their film and get it acquired. At the end of the day, nothing is worse than suffering from COVID-19. I haven't been diagnosed—although I did lose two friends—so it could be a hell of a lot worse for me. I'm doing okay.
Your title's reference to The 40-Year-Old Virgin feels particularly apt, considering the film canon of white men being allowed to be somehow "incomplete" adults; how does it feel to be putting a Black woman in that position?
It feels great. It feels refreshing, and very true to life; I know a lot of women my age and older who, after a divorce or having a certain amount of success in a particular career path, they're just like, What next? For me, turning 40 and losing my mother just made me go, "What am I doing? This is not where I thought I would be." I completely appropriated Judd Apatow's title and his running time, just trying to give a Black woman the same treatment that his—and many other filmmakers'—movies are doing for my white male counterparts, in terms of being a character who's going on a journey of self-discovery. It still happens at this age, and older, for Black women.
There's a particularly gutting scene early in the film where Radha is on the floor, crying out for her mother and repeating, "I just want to be an artist." It felt so visceral; did it come from a real place?
Yes (laughs). It was drawn from not so long ago. I think people have this assumption that because I'm in my film, I want to be a star or a celebrity, and I'm not at all interested in that; I really do want to remain an artist. Sometimes it's just easier to be the subject, and I don't plan on being in any more of my films if I can help it, but it's frustrating. I've been working on this film for six years, I finally get it made and people are gravitating toward it, but what's difficult is when I put my everything into a film and people still have no clue what kind of artist I want to be. The assumption is that you make a first indie film and then you're in Hollywood and you're settled. It didn't take me this long to be an artist to be like, I'm ready to do my Marvel film. I think the film asks a question about success; for me, success would be me being able to make the movies that I want to make, but it's a tricky dance. There will be love for you, but the love has some conditions. I went this complete indie way, black-and-white, put myself in it, and at times some very well-meaning people discouraged me from doing that; I did this thing that was very true to my voice, and now there seems to be an interest in me not fully being myself. I didn't think that would come with this—this having to constantly say "No, this is who I am, I want to be an artist."
What's it like to watch the film connect with the world, after spending so long working on it?
I'm so fortunate to be here; I'm so happy, but if I'm going to keep it real? I feel like I'm always asked to be grateful as a Black woman artist, even though I bust my ass, even though I've worked to the point of exhaustion and passing out on set. It's "You should be grateful, you should be grateful," and I just wonder if Mark Duplass, Adam Sandler...are they often asked to be grateful, even when they bust their ass to get where they are? Even I'm talking from that place of, even when I'm not pleased with something—"I'm grateful!"—and I feel like there's a conditioning that happens. I wonder if that's going to end.
It's definitely interesting whose success is seen as natural, and who's considered lucky just to be "in the room."
You know, I've had people say to me—again, very well-meaning people—"Hey, look, I'm just trying to help you make your film." And this was someone I hired. When they delivered something I wasn't pleased with, and I said, "I don't like that, I want to do this," it was, "I'm just trying to help." I'm not a charity case! And I do sometimes wonder how race and gender impact what's expected of me and how I'm supposed to respond to things. Maybe it's also first-time filmmaker stuff, but that message keeps coming to me, even from people who are very close. I know people are not used to taking directives from a Black woman or seeing her centered as the captain of the ship, but it's very interesting to experience how people feel I should be responding to the success of this film.
If you could wake up tomorrow and start on your dream project, do you have an idea of what that would look like?
Absolutely. I can't really talk about it, but...I will say I'm mining the life and legacy of my parents, who struggled as artists in the '60s, '70s and '80s. Up until they left, they were always trying to leave something behind. I hope that I'm trusted with that vision as I was with this one; it says a lot about my producer, Lena Waithe, who I've known for many years, that I was enough. Who I was and what I wanted to say was absolutely enough, and she trusted it. Moving forward, I hope I can find more trustworthy collaborators, who can see, "She made the movie she wanted to make and we liked it, so maybe we should trust her with a second." I've been sitting on so much for a while now that's ready to meet its audience.