Over the past few weeks, I have constantly been thinking about the movies that studios are putting on the backburner to release when theaters are completely reopened. I am excited to see Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “No Time To Die,” Edgar Wright’s “Late Night in Soho,” Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” and, honestly, I am curious about Malcolm D. Lee’s “Space Jam: A New Legacy” with LeBron James. But, after I watched Radha Blank’s “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” I had trouble sleeping, which was certainly not the film’s intention. I stayed up asking myself about the creators who will most likely get shut out of studios’ upcoming release schedules. As these high-profile films keep piling up, more unique, diverse voices could end up being shut out in order to make up for the losses that studios have accumulated during the pandemic—and that would be a tragedy.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” (2020) was recently released on Netflix and features Radha Blank as the film’s writer, director and lead actor. Earlier this year, Blank won the Director’s Award for the Feature Film category at the Sundance Film Festival for her work on the movie, but this recognition has been a long time coming. The film, shot in beautiful black-and-white, is semi-autobiographical and follows the main character, Radha, a Black playwright living in NYC nearing 40. She previously won a 30-Under-30 Award for playwriting, but “success” never came to fruition. As she works on a revival of her play, Radha considers jumpstarting a new career as a rap artist.
The film exhibits how terrifying it is to be an artist, full stop. However, as we can see from Blank’s perspective, it is even more terrifying to be a Black, female artist. Blank’s character is working on a play that focuses on a Black man and his wife who run a convenience store in Harlem and deal with growing gentrification on their street. However, a white producer shrugs it off, arguing it isn’t “authentic” enough, instead suggesting that Radha write the script for his upcoming Harriet Tubman musical—she subsequently chokes him.
Blank does an exceptional job at tackling the issue of having to edit art for white, wealthy audiences and producers. In the film, it is implied that producers are not keen on promoting material that they do not perceive as being the most exaggerated example of Black life. The idea of producing a play with Black people that do not adhere to grossly racialized stereotypes is seen as a potential bore for white audiences. When Rhada asks for a Black director, she is ultimately shut down. This presents a perpetual cycle where white producers act as though they want to share diverse stories but actually worry about having control of the art they produce, catering to primarily older, white theatergoers. Although many people view the theater as a progressive industry, this lack of faith in creators from different backgrounds undermines the unique stories they have to tell.
Which brings me to my nightmare scenario for the next few years: a bombardment of mainstream films, sweeping the market of any original voices and ideas. For years, there has been sequel after sequel, remake after remake and so on and so forth. Movie studios want to make their $500 million films, maybe even making it into the $1 billion club. They know the formula to get there and they have doubled down on producing movies that will turn a profit. The films that don’t get the chance are—you guessed it—from marginalized voices. The stories they have to tell are swept under the rug and independent studios are left to fund them. I would say the one outlier would be “Black Panther,” but that still falls under the gargantuan Marvel Studios umbrella. It’s possible that ten Marvel films could be released in the next two years if theaters become fully operational.
So, where do these independent films get released? As COVID-19 is swallowing up the movie theater industry, some studios are selling these films to streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. “The Forty-Year-Old Version” was distributed by Netflix, which has an entire slate of films to wrap up the rest of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised if more independent films get sold to streaming services as theaters remain closed—and that’s not a bad thing. It allows creators to tell stories that usually would not be heard, and our current drought of content encourages a larger potential audience to hear the messages they have to deliver. Will this persist into the future? There’s no way to tell quite yet, but online streaming platforms might be a more accessible outlet to release these stories, rather than getting flooded by mediocre content in theaters.
Blank’s directorial debut is a fascinating picture of how the art world interacts with Black voices and the constant struggle to be heard even in the year 2020. It might be a little long for some, but the topics it addresses are conversations most people need to have. I do hope “The Forty-Year-Old Version” serves as a reminder for creators never to compromise their vision. The creative system needs to be reformed. The best stories are the most genuine, and it shouldn’t take overlooked artists like Blank 40 years to be recognized.