Minhal Baig’s “We Grown Now,” which bowed Sept. 8 at TIFF, follows Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez), two 10-year-old boys living in Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project. It’s 1992 and the boys have loving homes overzealous and racist police, crime and an unthinkable tragedy burst through their childhood bubble. Malik’s hard-working mother (Jurnee Smollett) and grandmother (S. Epatha Merkerson) can’t protect Malik from the rest of the world. Baig captures the kids’ innocence, exuberance, curiosity and confusion as events unfold through their eyes and threaten to tear apart the only home they’ve known. Cabrini Green was demolished in 2011. Despite that, Baig was able to interview many people who lived in the community, and their stories fed into her film.
Chicago-based Baig talked to Variety about the film, which is executive producers are Jeff Skoll, Anikah McLaren, James Schamus, Carrie Holt de Lama and Smollett. Participant is handling sales.
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Why did you want to write about Malik and Eric?
At the time I was writing it, I suppose I was processing my father’s death, and we have a family home in Chicago. We were all trying to decide what we should do with this home. My siblings and I had different feelings about the home, but it really came down to like, what does home mean? I was interested in this exploration of home and what it means. I wanted to understand it from the perspective of children, because for them it was the only place they’d ever known as home and that perspective, I felt, hasn’t really been visualized before. I started with the theme of this thing that I’m grieving and exploring and then it got very, very specific to 1992 in Chicago, in Cabrini Green, in a particular high rise following these two boys.
In 1992, a 7-year-old boy named Dantrell Davis was shot and killed as he was walking to school in Cabrini Green, and that was a very tragic event that shook the neighborhood and also the city. It affected the community very deeply.
Blake Cameron James and Gian Knight Ramirez give spectacular performances. How did you find these actors?
It was a very long casting process that started, I would say, a year and a half before we started filming. And we had, we were aided by Aisha Coley, who I had actually learned later on that she had cast “Crooklyn,” which was one of my favorite films and a great reference for me. I was speaking to her on the phone and I said I we need to get kids like the ones in “Crooklyn,” and she said, “Oh, I cast that.”
What I was looking for in the kids for this film was that they really needed to have their distinct personalities. They have full dialogue scenes. They’re very engaged and there’s many scenes where there are no adults, and so I really needed them to carry the movie.
There’s a joyous sequence when they skip school and go to the Art Institue of Chicago. Why there?
It came out of several stories I heard from former Cabrini Green residents that when you played hooky from school, you would sometimes go downtown or to the Gold Coast or to the beach, and it was just a way to escape the neighborhood for a while for a minute. The Art Institute had been one of my favorite places to go with my father when I was a kid, and so it just kind of felt right to me.
How does it feel to debut at TIFF?
I’m excited about it. It’s been a long journey for the movie, but it I think for everybody this film really felt like a genuine passion project. And so their commitment to this — I mean, we pitched this film with my producers in 2019 at Toronto — so it’s very fitting that we return here with this film.
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