Minhal Baig's journey to making We Grown Now was full of nos. The rising filmmaker broke out with 2019's Hala, her semi-autobiographical account of growing up Pakistani American, but she set out to explore a world beyond her own four walls with her next feature. "I was interested in telling a story that was larger than myself," Baig says, "and about a place and a people that I think are not given their due."

We Grown Now takes place in a time and a place that no longer exists. The drama centers on childhood best friends as they come of age in Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing project, which has been largely demolished since 2011. Baig's vision posed certain challenges: It would be a period piece (the film is set in 1992), the Cabrini-Green high-rises needed to be recreated for the shoot, and the movie would be led by two unknown first-time actors.

"There were all these reasons for people to say no," Baig tells A.frame. "There was a lot of feedback I got from people to change the movie so that it would be easier to make, but the reasons why people were saying no were the same reasons I was excited about it. Because it was something that hadn't been done before."

Baig is a Chicago native, but this is not her story. ("I'm not from the projects, I'm not Black, I'm not part of this community.") She spoke with journalists who were already working to preserve the oral histories of Cabrini-Green, who then connected her with community members that she interviewed over a number of years. Their stories helped bring authenticity to We Grown Now; for the filmmaker, it was always important that those stories be shared through the eyes of a child.

"Cabrini-Green is a place that has both danger and joy and beauty — all of those things at once," explains Baig. "What we're trying to do is really immerse the audience in a more subjective experience of what this place would've been like where a dirty mattress is one of the most incredible finds! And ditching school is a grand adventure! If it were from an adult's point of view, I think it would be a little bit more sobering, and frankly, it would've been a really different movie, and maybe [a] more expected movie."


We Grown Now follows Malik and Eric, played by newcomers Blake Cameron and Gian Knight Ramirez. Baig spent a year and a half auditioning hundreds of kids before she found her stars. "It was very clear from their tapes immediately that they were the kids." Ramirez, in particular, is from Chicago himself. "He felt like he was already a part of the movie," Baig says. "He really had a soul and the spirit of a kid from Cabrini-Green."

Malik and Eric's story is told against the backdrop of a real-life tragedy: the death of Dantrell Davis, who was 7 years old when he was shot and killed on his way to school. Before filming, both of the young actors had the opportunity to meet Dantrell's mother, Annette Freeman. "They took the roles very seriously. They had done a lot of research on the time period and what they were portraying, and so they understood a lot about the story and what happened to Dantrell," recounts the director. "I think it was a responsibility they felt they carried in trying to represent these kids' lives."

Jurnee Smollett co-stars as Malik's single mom, Dolores. The actress similarly had a chance to spend time with Ms. Freeman ("The interaction with her was probably the most impactful for me"), although the story proved unexpectedly personal as she found herself drawing on her own life experience.

"As an actor, you have to constantly assess where am I like the character? Where am I not like the character? And absolutely, as a mom of a 7-year-old little Black boy, there are ways in which I know that inside and out. I know the world of mothering — the joys, the fears, the hopes, and dreams that you have for your babies, how as a mom, I'm trying to protect his joy, and his light, and his natural leadership ability. I'm trying to create a space for him to be vulnerable and cry, and dream, and not take on the toxic masculinity traits that society puts on little boys," Smollett says. "I think the obvious ways in which I'm different than Dolores is I sit in a place of privilege. I have access to means while raising my son that Dolores doesn't. And yet, I'm also familiar with that struggle. I am familiar with the feeling of the ups and downs of life."

Smollett has been acting her entire life — she booked her first role in a diaper commercial at 10 months old — and having Cameron and Ramirez on set proved to be something of a full circle moment. "They came on set so in awe of everything in every way, and I was able to reconnect with the magic of cinema," says the actress. "Sometimes we just take for granted what we do. You're so focused on the mission that you can easily lose sense of, oh wow, we're all just creating magic! But staying in touch with that inner child is so essential for all of us. Life can be so heavy and children have this innocence, this curiosity and this imagination about everything."

'We Grown Now' director Minhal Baig at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival.

In many ways, getting We Grown Now to a place of yes was only the start. Baig began working on the project while she was still in post-production on Hala; however, once it was greenlit, the film was delayed due to the pandemic, during which time the filmmaker continued her research and continuously revised the screenplay. When the movie was finally ready to debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the Changemaker Award, Smollett was unable to attend due to the SAG-AFTRA strikes. "It feels like I've lived with it so long," says Baig.

Looking back now, the entire experience would have been worth it whether the film had happened or not.

"The process really required a kind of selflessness in the sense that if, at the end of this process, it didn't yield a movie, that was okay with me," Baig explains. "I was doing it genuinely because I'm passionate and excited about the subject, and also because I found these people so fascinating. There wasn't any way to stop doing it."

As We Grown Now arrives in theaters, the director and star have both had a chance to see firsthand the impact their movie is having on audiences. The screenings, they agree, have been emotional. As Smollett shares, "People are laughing, crying, we've had a few people who reached out and have been like, 'Oh, I grew up in Cabrini-Green, and this film had me in tears. I felt like I was home again.'"

That was always the point: For the unseen to be seen, for the unshown to be shown.

"One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when the boys are shouting, 'I exist! I exist!'" says Smollett. "If there is any takeaway from the film, I would love for people to walk out the film shouting, 'I exist!'"

Reporting by Sara Tardiff


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