We Grown Now

Minhal Baig’s “We Grown Now” begins with an extended sequence featuring two young boys manhandling a full-size bed mattress down the hallway, then down the stairs, and onto an inner-city playground.  Why?  We soon learn the boys simply want to stack a couple mattresses and then jump on them.  Which neighborhood kid can jump the highest?  The farthest?  This is the kind of self-made after-school or weekend fun kids invent when they don’t own the latest electronic toys.

The title

After last year’s “American Fiction,” it’s a little hard to see a title like “We Grown Now” without at least smirking.  And if this reference is lost, please see “American Fiction.”  But if we can get past the smirk – and the lack of a verb – “We Grown Now” is a very good picture about two boys growing up black and poor in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing project during the 1990s.

The story

Eric and Malik are lifelong best friends.  They each have a sister, but they also fill the role of the brother neither one ever had.  They go to the same elementary school, they’re in the same class, and they live just down the hall from one another.  Eric (newcomer Gian Knight Ramirez) lives with his father and his much older sister, who is about to go to college.  Eric’s mother is deceased, and his father is a stern taskmaster with a gentle side, and a deep love of his children.

More screen time is spent, however, on Eric’s best friend and soulmate Malik (another newcomer, Blake Cameron).  He lives with his mother Dolores, his grandmother Anita, and occasionally annoying little sister Amber.  We never learn what happened to Malik’s father, but his mother certainly does her best to keep the family together, and to keep Malik and his sister on the straight and narrow.  We get the sense the majority of the Cabrini-Green families are poor, single-parent households, but the parents are doing their very best to survive in an increasingly dangerous world.

Jurnee Smollett at Children’s Defense Fund Beat the Odds Awards

The pivotal character

And while Malik and Eric are obviously the focal points of “We Grown Now,” I see the pivotal character as that of Delores, played by Jurnee Smollett.  The concern she has for the well-being of her children (and mother) increases exponentially when a seven-year-old neighbor boy is shot and killed.  When Malik and Eric cut class a few days later, Dolores flips a proverbial lid, knowing that she isn’t there to protect them when they wander about unsupervised.

Living conditions

Meanwhile, the Cabrini-Green living conditions are worsening.  Not only is a boy killed, but the Chicago police perform a series of unnecessarily brutal (and warrantless) raids on each apartment unit in a search for drugs, which are now on the increase in the housing projects.  It’s a tough life, and the two boys are forced to grow up faster than their suburban counterparts.

Unlike Eric’s dad (actor-comedian Lil Rel Howery), who works at a pizza joint, Dolores is a professional.  She works for a company which audits the books of various clients.  It’s unclear whether she’s a CPA, but she performs accounting functions.  When given the opportunity to relocate to Peoria (complete with a substantial pay raise), one would think Dolores would be ecstatic.  But this will involve relocating her children.  While Amber is probably in first or second grade, a move of this kind will be difficult for the older and more mature Malik.  Plus, he’ll have to leave behind his best friend.


Although it comes late in the film, this dilemma is the crux of “We Grown Now.”  On the one hand, Malik certainly doesn’t want to leave Eric behind.  On the other, he’s always dreamed of finding a better life somewhere else.  And while Cabrini-Green is the only life Malik has ever known, Baig and cinematographer Pat Scola do an excellent job of returning us to the draperies blowing in the open window of Malik’s room.  We never see what’s on the other side, but the recurring shot shows us Malik’s desire to experience another life.

Eye-level cinematography

I also appreciate how Baig and Scola shoot the entire film from the eye level of Malik and Eric.  We see adults, building, trains, and buses as almost larger than life.  It is reminiscent of the way famed Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu shot his pictures in the 1940s and ‘50s – from a kneeling position, to equate the viewer with the Japanese tradition of sitting on the floor.  Here, the same technique is used to focus our field of vision with that of the boys.

We Grown Now” is not in the same league as recent “black” films “The Hate You Give” or “Waves,” but it doesn’t need to be.  We don’t compare “white” films to one another, saying “Wicked Little Letters” is not in the same league as “Oppenheimer.”  So, why do we feel the need to compare films about the African American experience?  “We Grown Now” stands on its own as a very good and thought-provoking portrait of two young boys forced to grow up well before their time.  It’s one of this year’s best films so far.






Andy Ray‘s reviews also appear on https://townepost.com/.

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