Exclusive: Lil Rel Howery On Why ‘We Grown Now’ Is A Chicago Love Letter

Lil Rel Howery plays Jason in We Grown Now (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures).

In case you haven’t heard, Netflix recently released an animated reboot of “Good Times” that is rife with racist, vile and cringe-inducing depictions of Black life. It makes it seem as if the people responsible for it had no connection to the spirit of Chicago, the original show or its Cabrini-Green setting. For shows in the “Straight Huff” category, it is about as tone-deaf, facile and putrid as it gets—A drug dealing baby? Like, for real???

But, where the animated Good Times molders, the film “We Grown Now,” also set in Cabrini circa 1992, blossoms, proving that perspective, connectedness and inclusivity can humanize subject and setting. 

Writer and director Minhal Baig created a film that portrays the world of Cabrini through the eyes of 10-year-old best friends Malik and Eric. Through their eyes, we are treated to the wonders and joys of this environment. Moreover, Baig made sure to include the perspectives of actual Cabrini residents in making the film.

The Chicago Defender recently got this tea and more in our convo with Lil Rel Howery, who plays a single dad in “We Grown Now.” Howery shares why the movie truly embodies Chicago and Cabrini in the most authentic and imaginative way.   

We Grown Now Movie Poster

Tacuma Roeback: How much do Malik and Eric’s experiences in the movie mirror your own?

Lil Rel Howery: It mirrors mine a lot, actually. I was the same age as the characters in the movie in 92. So, for me, it’s very familiar. Even just the way their friendship is. I had quite a few friends like that, and I do remember the summer before things got real. And that’s what this movie reminds me of—when you still felt like a kid until things got maybe just a little bad. My parents were like, ‘Hey, you can’t go here. Now you have to be careful, and you got to get home at this time.’ 

Now, things get a little different. But just watching them have this Black boy joy and this friendship—I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it in a movie before—makes me tear up. I think that’s why most of us who watched this movie kind of teared up—because it reminds us of something we almost forgot about, because of all the other trauma that happened later on. 

But “We Grown Now” is just a love letter to Chicago. It felt like something I needed to see, too, because we don’t humanize those residents at Cabrini Green enough to show what families really look like, not the version that we heard in the media. These are the real families that lived there. Just even being a dad in this, I had to dig deep and pull from my own dad to really have the mindset of whatever my parents were thinking about at that time. And so yeah, “We Grown Now” is not only a love letter to me, but Chicago too.  

Tacuma Roeback: I read somewhere that “We Grown Now” Director Minhal Baig was very purposeful in portraying Cabrini-Green through the eyes and ears of Eric and Malik. Can you talk about why that’s important?

Lil Rel Howery: It’s something about seeing things from a child’s eyes. Whatever they see is so real, right? I think sometimes, as adults, we can remix things and change the narrative. But when a kid sees something, they’re seeing it for what it really is. So, I thought what she did was so amazing when you just see some of the shots in the movie. It’s a scene with [co-star Jurnee Smollett] and the grandmother. They were both talking, and the camera was just on the kids listening and taking in that very adult, real conversation that was happening. That was a beautiful way to depict this film from their eyes. It made it more authentic, to be quite honest with you.

“We Grown Now,” and I’m just being honest, it fed my soul in a way that made me appreciate how I grew up and my family.”  – Lil Rel Howery

Tacuma Roeback: You play Jason in the film and talk a little about trying to imagine what your parents may have felt in the early 90s. Can you talk about your preparation for the role? 

Lil Rel Howery: I mean, honestly, it wasn’t hard to prepare for this. It was just a mindset. So, for me, I just had to go to what would I think my dad was thinking and my mom was thinking. What would it feel like to be a single father? Because that’s another thing: Jason is a single dad in 1992 in Cabrini Green. Him making these decisions and trying to keep things afloat. You could tell the friendship between my character and Jurnee’s character was that whenever he needed somebody to give them motherly stuff, that’s when she pretty much showed up. 

You can see that, towards the end of the movie to where, in one of the scenes—I don’t want to give too much away—she’s comforting him and talking to Eric. That’s something that Jason couldn’t give because Jason didn’t have the emotional capacity for it. Even in my speech to him, when I tell him he’s grown now, but he’s only 10. But at the same time, you know what’s going on at that time to survive. A lot of us had to grow up a little earlier than we would’ve liked, actually. 

Tacuma Roeback: What does it mean to have someone from Chicago who actually wrote, directed and produced this film?

Lil Rel Howery: It means a lot to have somebody from Chicago write, direct, or even just have any real thoughts about doing something authentic like this. Her brilliance, Minhal, is interviewing those residents. Taking those stories and implementing them in the script. We did a panel yesterday, and one of the things she said was, you know, people were like, ‘Oh, you wrote all this great stuff!’ But she’s like, ‘Naw, I can’t take all the credit. This is from the residents. This is from the people I talked to.’ She was able to implement that in the script. But that’s the good thing about having somebody from Chicago who understands. You can’t play with our stories like that. 

A scene from the film, We Grown Now

A scene from the film, “We Grown Now” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures).

Tacuma Roeback: Everybody knows you from “Get Out” and “Free Guy.” But how has “We Grown Now” changed you on a fundamental level?

Lil Rel Howery: You know something? “We Grown Now,” and I’m just being honest, it fed my soul in a way that made me appreciate how I grew up and my family. My family was raised in the Jane Addams projects. And they had dinner together at the dinner table. They did read books, and they did all this imaginative stuff. You know what I mean? 

And “We Grown Now” does a great job of showing how any young person that even watches this or even anybody older, when you let your imaginations soar, the sky’s the limit. Think about the mattress jumping, right? You know, the Jesse White Tumblers—that’s the reason why Jesse White probably created it—because gymnastic programs didn’t exist. And you saw these kids doing these flips on these mattresses, and they’re very athletic, and they’re killing it. And he did something about that. So it just shows you how amazing, when we all can come together as a community, how we can make things happen. But it also exposes CHA (the Chicago Housing Authority) in a way that really breaks my heart: those families weren’t treated like they were supposed to be. You know what I mean?

Tacuma Roeback: Indeed. For people wondering about “We Grown Now,” what would you say to them to come out and see this film, especially our audience, Black Chicago?

Lil Rel Howery: It’s a love letter, and it’s a reminder of family. I love the scenes of just them having dinner and having conversations. And you imagine this huge building, right? Every time I watch this movie, I think about how, probably at 7:30, everybody in Cabrini-Green was having dinner almost at the same time but with their families. 

I think when Chicago sees that, especially how authentic it is, people are going to really enjoy it and feel a sense of family and community. I love the fact that we humanize the residents. That’s such a big deal to me. Because Cabrini-Green had a bad rap for whatever reason. But the people make the place. That’s what this movie reminds you of—is that the people make the place. And those residents made that place. Yeah, it was things that happened, but it was also beautiful at the same time.

 

 

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