A talent to definitely watch, Baig spoke to us before the award and just after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)…
THERE’S something quite epic about ‘We Grown Now’ – the feature film that won director Minhal Baig her Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Changemaker Award.
This award recognises a film which “explores issues relevant to young people and is focused on the themes of social change and youth empowerment”.
The award aims to celebrate the next generation and recognise communities which have traditionally been underrepresented or perhaps even poorly represented.
Baig’s film is about two black kids, growing up on an infamous high rise housing estate called Cabrini Green in Chicago, her home city, in 1992.
Characters Malik and Eric share a friendship and are more like brothers than just friends; the film beautifully depicts the contours of friendship at their tender age (formally unspecified but perhaps 10 or 11?), both its highs and its lows; and both boys are rooted in families who are solid and loving.
For www.asianculturevulture.com, that is part of the film’s essential charm and power – two black kids, two black families, surviving and in some unflashy ways actually thriving – at least giving these two boys about to step into teenage-hood, dreams and aspirations from a stable foundation.
Despite the pressures of such an environment, where at one point 15,000 lived and where violence and crime were not so remote – Dantrell Davis, who was just seven and lived in the block, was gunned down while walking to the school in 1992, cementing the city’s global reputation for violence and conflict. The high rises were demolished completely in 2011, completing a cycle that had begun in 1995.
Baig focuses on the mundane – almost boring – the film never is – shot with style, sensitivity and finesse, the families’ lives are epic and powerful, just doing ordinary stuff.
She said the trigger for the film went back to returning to her Chicago family home, following her father’s passing in 2013.
For this film, Baig was inspired and fascinated about the myths and misconceptions surrounding Cabrini Green.
“I was wrestling with what home means, through the perspective of people who don’t have that physical marker of home,” Baig told acv over Zoom just after the film had enjoyed its world premiere at TIFF on September 8.
“There was a long interview process of finding people who had lived in Cabrini Green and just going from there.”
She talked to Annette Freeman, Dantrell Davis’s mother who still lives in Chicago.
While there was a dispersal – some moved away from Chicago altogether – some stayed and one thing came through both her interviews and the film she has made.
There is a distinct community and it is what helps folks survive and one might argue, prosper. And it’s what drew Baig to making a film with two boys at the centre of it.
“I had spoken to people who were children in the early 1990s and they’re not much older than me. I was drawn to the way that they spoke about Cabrini Green, there was a lot of fun – they were jumping on mattresses and playing hooky from school (truanting) and there was a lot of beauty and wonder in this world in this place, alongside the harsh reality of what it means to live in a public housing project.
“I felt like this hadn’t really been shared before visually and I wanted the audience to also fall in love with the place and see it the way that they (some residents) did.”
Finding two young actors on whose shoulders the film would rest was not easy either. Enlisting the help of two casting scouts – Aisha Coley (‘Crooklyn’) and the more established and Chicago native Claire Simon, Baig saw audition tapes and had Zooms during 2020 and lockdown.
“I saw hundreds of kids – and it was a difficult search because the story required them to really carry the movie. They had dialogue and there are entire scenes with just the two of them. So, we needed to find children who were not only the characters but had the emotional maturity to be in a movie where there’s a six week schedule and they have to show up every day and do the best work they can.”
Blake Cameron James is Malik, who has more screen time than buddy Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez). Both excel and carry the movie effortlessly.
Baig told us she asked prospective leads what they might do if they had unlimited money.
James told Baig that he wanted a lifetime supply of his favourite potato chip brand.
“I just thought it was just such a Malik response,” Baig smiled, saying that most kids said they would save it for a house or a similar item and James’ mum had been disappointed by her son’s answer.
“He had so much leadership quality – and Gian came from Chicago and he just felt like the kids from Cabrini Green. They’re both very smart, emotionally intelligent children and brought a lot of their own to the character.”
Baig said her being from Chicago and consulting people such as Freeman and other Cabrini Green residents helped her to make a film which is outside her own ethnic community.
Her debut feature film ‘Hala’ (2019), also filmed in Chicago, is about a Pakistani-American teenage girl finding both romance and spoken word poetry with a white boy – and then bumping against a father distinctly uncomfortable with his daughter’s agency. One of the film’s producers was James Lassiter, who runs a company alongside Will Smith and wife Jade Pinkett, who was reported to have been personally excited by Baig’s potential.
Will we see Malik and Eric ten years on?
“Everyone’s asked me that,” chuckled Baig, not elaborating.
“‘We Grown Now’ is about what it means to have a home and what it means to us – and about two friends learning to say goodbye to each other.”
All pictures courtesy of TIFF except the portrait…
‘We Grown Now’ is set to release in the US on October 11.
TIFF Awards – South Asian films – more here…