7 steps to find your inclusive voice in journalism, as taught by ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’ on Netflix

Director and protagonist Radha Blank:

“Adversity is a great polisher of the mirror of life.”

Director Radha Blank ©GettyImages

(Warning: this article contains spoilers, you better watch the movie first ;)

I accidentally watched ‘The Forty-Year Old version’ on Netflix, not aware of the praising reviews it got already after the world premiere at Sundance Film Festival in January of this year. David Sims writes for The Atlantic:

The 40-Year-Old Version is a sparkling, witty film about creative frustration that deserves a big audience”.

It’s one of these films you’ll be taking notes while watching because the quotes and wisdom you hear are so on point. Especially in these times, with COVID-19 still influencing our lives, the Black Lives Matters protests fresh in our minds and the discussion about media diversity back onto the agenda.

Find your own voice

Radha Blank is writer and director of the movie and plays a version of herself as a playwright who explores her creative talent through rapping. The movie contains messages on many different levels, from personal struggles about loneliness, love and acceptance to political issues about neighbourhood gentrification and the dominance of white men in the artist world.

At some point in the film, the main character raps:

Forty-year-old version
Find your own voice
Fund your own vision
Fill your own void

Finding her voice is ultimately what Radha needs to become successful. She struggles with her life. Professionally because ten years ago she was a promising playwright and now she’s teaching drama class to teenagers. Personally, because she griefs about the loss of her mother and she hasn’t had a love relationship for a long time. As A.O. Scott writes for The New York Times: ‘She finds herself perpetually short on patience, stamina and time’.

By exploring her creativity as a rapper, reaching out to a producer and sharing her new hobby with people in the neighbourhood, she creates artistic freedom that she lacks in her playwright projects. It gives her the confidence she needs to find her own way in her theatre career as well.

Let’s have a look at the different stages Radha goes through in this process of finding her own voice and how they relate to journalists:

Phase #1: Radha feels lonely and frustrated.

Through COVID-19 journalists spend more time alone working remotely. At the same time, there can be frustration or a feeling of overwhelmingness because of the extra time spent online and household tasks that come with staying at home.

Phase #2: Radha becomes self-conscious and self-critical to her own experience.

Since the Black Lives Matters protests, the topic of objectivity in journalism is rightly brought back up. Realizing that real objectivity doesn’t exist because we all talk from our own perspectives leads the way to become self-conscious and self-critical to our own experiences.

Phase #3: Radha creates an awareness of the politics that affect her life and work.

Like in the world of film and theatre, the media are mostly run by middle-aged white men as well. So being aware of the power structures that help or prohibit you from growing further on your career path is crucial.

Phase #4: Radha speaks out about the ‘problem of a Black artist whose career depends on white decision-makers’.

Speaking out about racism is the very first step towards inclusive newsrooms and too often white journalists are silent about this topic because they never experienced racism. One can’t be truly self-conscious anymore though without realizing white privilege. Speaking out is the action that follows upon that realization.

Phase #5: Radha creates a persona to express her (inner) voice as a rapper and confront the hostile environment with practical wisdom.

Exploring new fields of communication, writing and reporting outside of journalism (literature, spoken word, poetry, etc) can help journalists to find their own voice, without being afraid to report subjectively on issues.

(The last two phases are to be found on the production level of the movie, as Blank is the director and protagonist at the same time.)

Phase #6: Radha as a director takes out the colour and forces people to see a certain level of humanity

Blank explains why she shot the film in black and white. For journalists, the level of aesthetics is equally important. Which words do you use to describe the people you report about? Which images or footage do you choose to tell your story? And how to make sure that humanity is always the priority?

Phase #7: Radha’s logic: ‘Why wouldn’t a crew shooting a New York film look like who’s in the New York film?’

The logic that stems from this statement speaks for itself. Blank hired a diverse crew to create the movie as she told Vice. Likewise, in order to reach Black people, people of colour, indigenous people, minorities and all other groups that have been left out too much by journalism, you need to create a newsroom that reflects the society.

Mental health and journalism

The interesting thing about the seven phases in this process is the link between feeling mentally healthy in the beginning and creating a diverse newsroom in the end. To find your own voice and therefore meaning in the work you do, will automatically lead towards more inclusion.

Even as journalists we get overwhelmed by the news, the overload of stories that reaches us through the different digital platforms every day. Let alone the feeling of pointlessness we could get if we think about what to contribute that hasn’t been told already.

Finding your voice means understanding your purpose and that’s crucial in preventing yourself from a burn-out: ‘The difference between being tired and burnt out is mostly noticeable in being able to find meaning in your job, even if it is making you exhausted’, says Founder of “The Radical Act of Self-Care“ Anna Kuliberda.

As a Black director, Blank shows with ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version’ that her story needs to be told. In the podcast Talk Easy she shares:

“There was always that kind of song in my head so to speak. Even though I was playing with these other great artists and storytellers, this thing was almost hunting me. So making the film was also like an exorcism, it was something I was sitting on, trying to essay for such a long time.”

Don’t let your story hunt you for too long. Follow your calling, create space for your creativity to thrive and contribute to building journalism that is inclusive.

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Exploring the solutions to the lack of inclusion in journalism, focusing on decolonising journalism and discussing whiteness, Eurocentrism and objectivity.