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“I Was Definitely Paying Homage to Stories Set in Chicago”: Minhal Baig on We Grown Now

We Grown Now

Through chronicling a critical turning point for the residents of Chicago’s now-defunct Cabrini-Green public housing project, writer-director Minhal Baig’s We Grown Now explores how the reverberations of this bygone time and place continue to register today. Set in 1992 amid the real-life death of 7-year-old Dantrell Davis—who was walking to school with his mother when a stray bullet struck him—Baig’s film follows young boys Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez) as they grapple with the aftermath of the tragedy. 

Despite the oppressive living conditions due to Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) negligence, Malik’s home life is replete with love and comfort. Grandmother Anita (S. Epatha Merkerson) has lived in the apartment for decades, as has single mom Dolores (a small yet mighty Jurnee Smollett), and both do their best to make the abode as stable and supportive as possible, even when besieged by financial woes or broader systemic ills. Conversely, Eric’s family dynamic is one dictated by constant criticism and punishment, particularly on the part of his dismissive father (comedian Lil Rel Howery in an interesting dramatic turn). As both boys navigate their own complex emotions after Dantrell’s murder—and the heightened, violent police presence that descends upon Cabrini-Green—the nature of their support systems ultimately dictate their respective abilities to cope and grow. As Cabrini-Green begins to dissolve, there’s also the fear that Malik and Eric’s friendship will fall with the high-rises. 

The Chicago-born Haig’s previous feature, Hala, screened in the 2019 Sundance Dramatic Competition, and she won the 2023 Changemaker Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, where We Grown Now — one of the final productions of Participant, who produced alongside Stage 6 and Symbolic Exchange  premiered. I spoke with Baig shortly after her film’s April 19 theatrical release from Sony Pictures Classics. Below, we discuss the intensive interview process Baig conducted with former Cabrini-Green residents, how her production team recreated the high-rises via archival blueprints and the homages to Chicago cinematic staples that influence We Grown Now. 

Filmmaker: During the writing process, how did you work to incorporate your own research of Cabrini-Green while capturing certain textures of Chicago that you experienced during your own upbringing there? 

Baig: It was a balance. I approached the writing of this movie with curiosity. I was interviewing former Cabrini-Green residents for several years, and the stories they were sharing with me appealed to me because I related to them and they reminded me of my own childhood. Just by nature of being the person who sifted through those things, there’s part of me and my childhood in it already. But what I really wanted to do [while] writing was to be accurate in the emotional truths that they were sharing with me—making sure that I got the history, geography, details and textures correct while also visually emphasizing them in the movie. We’re witnessing this story through these kids’ eyes, so we have a bit of creative license to really underline certain moments and bring sights and sounds to life in a way that really makes you feel like you’re in it with them. 

I remember growing up in the ‘90s. There is so much that was just imprinted on my brain from that time, so those things did end up in the story. Being the person that writes the story, you’re coming at it with a certain lens or perspective that is informed by your life experience. It was definitely a balance, but I led with making sure that it felt accurate in the ways that mattered. I tried to remind myself that this is a story I’m making, but for the folks that I’m interviewing, this was their life. The film has to do justice to the stories they share with me in some way. I mean, obviously you can never capture the full picture of life there, but it has to feel true. 

Filmmaker: To that point, what made you want to incorporate the real-life death of 7-year-old Dantrell Davis into the storyline? Were there any other true-to-life stories from Cabrini-Green that were particularly impactful to you while shaping the film’s narrative? 

Baig: Dantrell’s name naturally came up a lot in my interviews. I’d known about what happened from the research and reading I’d done, but it was a name and moment in the history of the neighborhood—the history of Chicago, even—that came up a lot for people who lived in Cabrini-Green. It felt like an important moment to include in the movie because it [marked] a transitional period with the residents. A child is killed in their neighborhood, and it’s incredibly tragic. The political response was insufficient, and residents were really left feeling as if they were being blamed for what was going on in the high rises; that they were the problem. That’s why you had the raids that were authorized by CHA, so 1992 became a very critical turning point. It made sense that [the film was set during] that time and not later when the plan for transformation was announced, because Dantrell’s death really brought national attention to a public housing project in Chicago that most people were not familiar with. Suddenly there’s all of this scrutiny and this place being representative of all the failures of the social experiment of public housing. As this transition is happening in the neighborhood, this relationship between these two kids is also on the precipice of this change—experiencing these external forces that are going to change the nature of their friendship and their lives—that they have no control over. 

Filmmaker:  While Chicago is certainly the focus of the film, I think it also cleverly asserts the locale as a microcosm of continuous and escalating inequality in America. The recurring scenes of the kids chanting the Pledge of Allegiance feel bleak, particularly as these same kids become targeted by over-policing in the name of “community safety.” How’d you arrive at this particular motif? 

Baig: The Pledge of Allegiance is another thing from my childhood that is just imprinted on my brain. I went to a public school and we had to recite that every single morning. Now that feels a bit strange, but at the time it just felt like something that you did. It’s the culture of the school, every morning you are reminding yourself of the country you live in and all that you’re afforded by living here. It’s interesting, because the child actors did not know the Pledge of Allegiance. Now they are not required to say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school, so we actually had to give them the text [to read and memorize]. 

At the time of filming, it had been 30 years since Dantrell died. The culture of schools has changed, but it did feel bleak to me as well that we have a largely Black classroom reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to a country that has disenfranchised them, prevented them from achieving their full potential and strips them of their personhood and humanity. I think that the sequence of the first time that it comes into the story is very playful because it’s like, “Hey, remember when we used to say the Pledge of Allegiance?” It was the part of the day that you really hated. Then the second time [it’s recited is] after Dantrell has been killed, and now it has a different meaning. It’s not just an annoying part of the day to get through, it’s a reminder of the rights and privileges that are denied to Black people in our country—the inequity that they experience—yet still have to participate in this practice. Obviously it may feel like a relic now, but that was such a part of going to school: being a proper student and citizen is to participate in saying the Pledge of Allegiance every day.

Filmmaker: What conversations did you have with your two young leads, Blake Cameron James and Gian Knight Ramirez, about the history of this place and the enduring significance of these residents’ experiences? 

Baig: Blake and Gian are incredibly curious and smart kids. They hadn’t read the full script when we started working on the project—I wanted them to really feel present and in the moment with each scene—but we did discuss the history of Cabrini-Green and specifically what happened to Dantrell Davis and the neighborhood. They’d also done a lot of research on their own, so when we were coming into rehearsal, they understood that this is a story that takes place 30 years ago in these high rises that no longer exists. 

They really took a lot of ownership of their roles and knew a lot about the circumstances that these kids were living in. Blake has said in an interview before that he understood that he was playing a character who has a very different life than he has. Blake is imaginative and able to see the decisions that this character would make. He and Gian are both pretty different from their characters, but I also feel like they were able to find an emotional connection. Blake is also a dreamer and a leader, and Gian is also an incredibly sensitive person and an incredible writer, too. So they were approaching it with a lot of sensitivity to the history of the place. There was a responsibility to service that story respectfully and honestly, and they really took it seriously as 10-year-olds. 

Filmmaker: The production design on this film really impressed me, particularly when I read that your team used actual blueprints to recreate the high-rise set. I also love the way that light is cast and captured as well as the period-accurate details—from couches to TV sets to clothing. What helped you keep a cohesive vision of this specific year in the city? 

Baig: In my interviews, I often ended by asking my subjects what everyday details they remember most: what did they eat, what did they wear, what music did they listen to? What were their favorite clothing brands, what was the style at the time, what kind of cars people drove? Obviously I had details from my own childhood, but this is a very particular place and I wanted to make sure that we were capturing all the little parts that feel very specific and are memorable. People remember them for a reason. 

So there was just a collection of those at the end of every interview, and I put those all in a document of things that people remember. It included everything from the [cookie] tin to the curtains to the color of the couches to the types of jeans that people wore. That was really good to have when I was starting conversations with Merje [Veski], the production designer. She had a lot of photographic references, but there are actually not a lot of photos taken from inside Cabrini-Green. CHA did not want any documentation of these homes. Obviously, there are personal family photos, but journalists were not permitted to go inside, take a bunch of photos and document what life in the high-rise is like. They are public housing, but not just anyone can walk in. Especially after Dantrell was killed, they were very heavily guarded and there was a lot of security, so we had to get really resourceful when digging for anything that would give us a reference to what the insides of these apartments looked like. We have some photos, but then Merje found this blueprint at one of the libraries downtown of the layout of an actual unit. There were two apartments that we had to build. We slightly adjusted them and made them a little bit bigger so we had room for the camera, but it’s essentially the same. Then we really tried to recreate the materials and make sure everything from the color of the door to the finishings in the kitchen felt true to what they would have. We had Annette Freeman, Dantrell Davis’s mother, on set and we walked her around so that she could take a look. I believe she noticed that there was one thing that was not totally accurate—I think it was a hinge we were using on one of the windows—but she was very astonished at how closely we had replicated this place. So we had a lot of references to draw from, but we also talked to a lot of people and I shared those notes with the heads of department. We also had a lot of pictures of children on the playground, so that was really helpful for the costume designer to get a sense of how these kids were dressed. Some of them were black and white, so we don’t know what the colors were, but we could get a sense of what it looked and felt like. Then the subjective part of the story is that it’s told from the eyes of these kids, so we had a lot of room to visualize this place. For example, the interiors of Malik’s home have a lot of warmth, and that has a lot to do with the lighting and making sure that it felt very lived in. Dolores took a lot of pride in decorating this place and that multiple generations of the family had lived here. We needed to really feel like it was a safe place until it wasn’t.

Filmmaker: You’ve been routinely asked about filmic parallels in We Grown Now, from sharing the same setting with Candyman—which actually came out during the same year your film depicts—to riffing on the scene with the Seurat painting in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to mining from Spike Lee influences. Was there anything specific you were consciously looking to subvert or recontextualize about these cinematic touchstones? 

Baig: I was definitely paying homage to stories set in Chicago. The escape sequence from school is very much inspired by Cooley High. And then Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has them playing hooky from school, so it felt like a tradition that we just had to [honor] in the movie. It also was true to the stories that people shared with me of ditching school and going to the Gold Coast or downtown. The idea that every once in a while, escaping the neighborhood was to just leave class and go downtown. 

<i>Train Station<i> Walter Ellison 1935

But the sequence of the Art Institute was one that I really wanted to subvert because we have seen those paintings before in another movie, but they’re also very popular images that we’ve studied and learned in art history. They’re part of the canon. But the way that these kids interact with those paintings, they look at them, find them interesting and move on. The one painting that really draws their attention [Walter Ellison’s Train Station] is one that speaks to their life experience, their cultural experience, which is the story of the Great Migration, which happened before either of these kids was born. But it’s a painting that many viewers have probably never seen before. It’s not really taught as part of the canon. It’s by a Black artist, and it’s depicting a time in history that is really critical to understanding where these two kids are. That was what I was trying to do in showing these first two paintings that we’re familiar with and we understand and maybe speak to. We give these paintings emotional significance. The one that speaks to them is lesser known, but it’s a painting they can engage with and they understand. I felt that it was really important that we have the kids really drawn to this painting. 

By the way, in the Art Institute, that painting is very small. That’s why we don’t show them running up to it. We’re on them when they first see it because it’s located in a room that’s not incredibly well-lit. But I wanted that painting because it just felt really relevant to the movie and the history that precedes them. They’re finally seeing representation in an art museum, and that feels meaningful to them. 

Filmmaker: With several features now under your belt, what are your filmmaking aspirations going forward? Do you have your eyes set on future projects yet? 

Baig: Each of these movies takes so long to make and a lot of life has gone into them. By the time I’m finished, it’s like I’m a different person. I’ve been changed by the experience. There’s that principle in [quantum] physics where you change something by observing it. In film, you are changed by the work. By the time you come out, you’re like, “I had some idea of what I wanted my career to be before this movie.” But after this film, I was so transformed by how meaningful it all was: the process that it took to make it, the community I engaged with, the people I worked with. For the first time, I really felt like I had a team that believed in the vision and protected my creative autonomy. The final film was not just what I set out to do in the beginning, but exceeded all expectations. It’s very hard for me to imagine going and doing something in which I don’t have that connection. 

I have a movie that I’ve written and have been developing for the past two years while I was in post-production on this film that I’m really excited about. What I hope for more than anything is for myself to be surrounded by the same kinds of people. Unfortunately, Participant is shuttering, but that underlines the importance of having people along the way that kept advocating for this movie and kept supporting me. We were incredibly resilient in the face of the COVID shutdowns, which pushed our movie back, and then there was the unfortunate ensuing strike that made it impossible for the actors to be there for the premiere. Then the sale of the movie at a time when the market was very depressed and the release of the film theatrically at a time where movies like this are really not getting those kinds of releases. 

What I want to do is continue writing and directing features, but I want to continue doing it with the right people who really care about what we’re trying to do and how we do it. [Making sure] that we’re really being emotionally honest and truthful. 

I didn’t fully understand this with my last film, but now I really do understand the importance of a theatrical release and distribution, because I’ve now seen the movie with an audience and it is really such a different experience. Especially with stories like this, which are much less common now even though there are more movies getting made. So I’m feeling hopeful that it’s possible, but I am in the early stages on this next one. 

Filmmaker: Are you able to share any details? 

Baig: I can. It’s about a relationship between a mother and a daughter. I have a two-month-old child now, so my entire perspective on motherhood has changed because I was always on the other end of it. I was always the daughter. Now I’m a mother and I feel like something else has opened up for me. It really made me think back to my own relationship with my mom, which was very much the inspiration for the next movie. It’s a really deeply personal one, which I’m excited about. I really hope that I get to make it. 

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