In Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing complex, apartment 1203 remains empty. Its stained roof, dirty floors, and tattered walls full of peeling paint encapsulate what the once thriving complex has become. To outsiders it is a dump, but to 12-year-old Malik (Blake Cameron James) and his best friend Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez), it is an endless playground, a place where cracks in the ceiling can represent constellations if you look at them just right.
For them, Cabrini-Green is the only place they have known and, judging by how things are going, might be the only place they ever see. It is this intersection between childhood innocence and the harsh realities of the world around them that director Minhal Baig explores in her latest film, We Grown Now.
Following up her previous film, the engaging Hala, with another coming of age tale, Baig takes audiences within the walls of the Cabrini-Green. Built in the late 1940s to provide housing for workers during the war, in 1992, when the film takes, the complex is a shell of its former self. Once a place where Black families came looking for a fresh start, the area is now undermanaged and overpoliced. It is a place where crime is as persistent as the noisy sounds of people conversing outside, echoing through the hallways and windows like a radio without an off switch.
Baig presents a community desperately trying to grasp onto a rope that society is repeatedly cutting. While many of the residents, like Malik’s mother (Jurnee Smollett) and Eric’s father (Lil Rel Howery), worry about how they will provide for their families and the dangers that lurk outside their doors, their kids aim to make the best of their situation. Living in a cramped apartment with his mother, grandmother, and younger sister, Malik only cares about one thing – aside from the Chicago Bulls of course – and that is jumping. Pulling out discarded old mattresses from apt 1203, Malik and Eric routinely try to see how far the can leap and fly in the air.
As he notes early in the film, one’s wealth, race, or gender does not matter if you can jump. The playground may be the great equalizer, where they can channel their inner Air Jordan, but it is only a matter time before the walls of reality begin to close in on them. When a young boy in the area is shot while out with his mother, Malik and Eric cannot avoid the changes rapidly occurring around them. Police not only start harassing individuals on the street and ransacking homes, but also start enforcing a sketchy Chicago Housing Authority policy that will force every resident, regardless of age, to carry an ID card.
With the landlord neglecting to make repairs while drugs and crime seep into the neighbourhood, Delores is presented with a job opportunity that could potentially take the family out of Cabrini-Green, a move that would cut through the unbreakable bond Malik and Eric have built.
Frequently letting the camera linger on the hallways and windows of the Cabrini-Green complex, Baig immerses viewers to the point where they feel like they are living there as well. The claustrophobic feel of the apartments is amplified when Malik and Eric, while stuck behind fences like prisoners in a cage, look out to the city at large and scream “we exist!” It’s a rallying cry to remind themselves that they matter even if the powers that be have forgotten about them.
While cutting class to explore the city takes them to the architectural wonders of the train stations and museums, it also represents a life that is just out of reach. They assume that anyone not from their complex, like a pretty woman on the train that Malik falls for, is rich simply because others have opportunities they do not. The constant harassment by police only furthers this mentality.
Baig does not wallow in this mud for long, though. She uses Delores’ potential new role as a catalyst for the family, and Malik specifically, to think beyond the walls of their building. Through his vibrant imagination, one that can turn the sun shining through curtains into windows of trains, Malik’s fuels his passion to see the world.
Anchored by outstanding performances by James and Ramirez, whose facial expressions each convey so much earnest emotion, We Grown Now is a captivating and hopeful portrait of boyhood and community. Baig constructs a film that does not play into the stereotypes that are frequently associated with Chicago, but rather takes an intimate look at the pressures that often rip a community apart. She presents individuals actively trying to keep their families afloat when those outside of Cabrini-Green are actively trying to drown them.
While the film presents an emotional portrait of a community reaching the end of its era, the film does falter in how it navigates Eric’s shifting emotions. We do not get enough time with Eric and his family for the film to sell tension that arises in latter sections of the film. His increasingly hopeless demeanor feels authentic, but never takes into consideration that his older sister is about to be the first in the family to graduate college. Baig may give Delores the golden ticket out of the community, but Eric’s home life, what few snippets we see, hints that there is more than one way out of Cabrini-Green.
Although Eric’s actions towards the end feels a tad awkward at times, one always understands what are motivating them. Baig captures the bonds of friendship and the loss of innocence in an honest and moving way. She caps off her ode to community by incorporating black and white photos of residents of the actual Cabrini-Green complex. The images remind us that this community indeed existed and should not be forgotten.