Jurnee Smollett opens up on the challenge of raising Black sons in America as ‘We Grown Now’ premieres

“I could relate to that struggle of raising a Black son,” Smollett tells theGrio exclusively. “I want you to have your freedom. I want you to have your joy. But how do I help you channel that energy?"

In Jurnee Smollett’s new film, We Grown Now, she plays a loving mother who lives in the Cabrini Green housing complex in Chicago in the 1990s. 

Smollett’s character, Dolores, is raising her son, Malik, and daughter as their environment becomes more turbulent, plagued by police brutality and gang violence. Dolores wants to preserve Malik’s innocence but also needs to protect him and teach him about being a young, Black boy in America. Smollett fully understands the challenge as the mother of a 7-year-old son, Hunter. 

“I could relate to that struggle of raising a Black son,” the actress tells theGrio in an exclusive interview. “I want you to have your freedom. I want you to have your joy and I want to protect that energy. But how do I help you channel that energy? How do I not beat your spirit down? How do I not make you so obedient that you’re no longer a leader?

“But how do I also let you know you’re a Black boy in America. So I really struggle constantly with, like, how do I calibrate this for my son? I want him to be his whole full self. I want him to be audacious and bold. I want him to go out in the world and not have limits and not be afraid to fly. But also, you know, that talk that you got to have [about racism in this country].”  

We Grown Now, written and directed by Minhal Baig, is a powerful film that shows this dichotomy beautifully through the eyes of two young boys. Malik (Blake Cameron James) and his spirited neighbor, Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez), are best friends. Eric’s father, Jason, played by Lil Rel Howery, is also tasked with keeping his son safe and out of trouble as societal ills loom in the background. Jason is stern, but his love is just as strong. 

Howery, a Chicago native, says the film reminded him of his own upbringing in the Windy City. 

“Being from Chicago, born and raised there, I remember that time period, or when everything happened,” Howery tells theGrio. “When Minhal and I had our first conversation, it was like, ‘Oh, you for real get it.’ Because sometimes I’m a little nervous when people try to tell Chicago stories, to be quite honest with you. This one was just beautifully written, and beautifully done.

“I love that the perspective is from these two young men. We don’t see those types of friendships among Black boys. It was so innocent. Most of the guys I know who watch this movie are tearing up at the end, because you forget how innocent those friendships were at that time — especially being young Black men.”

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Smollett was raised in Los Angeles, having been a child actor in films like Eve’s Bayou, but also remembers the turbulent ‘90s. She channeled some of her childhood experiences during the 1992 Los Angeles riots into her character. The fear and uncertainty during that time helped her to better understand Malik’s feelings.

“I remember being a kid living in LA when the riots happened after Rodney King,” Smollett says. “I remember my mom and my dad sitting my oldest brother, Jojo [Smollett] down because he had just gotten his driver’s license. I remember them telling him, ‘If you ever get pulled over, this is how you have to act.’ You know, like, having that talk. I vividly remember. I think it was like 5, 6, 7 — I was young. But I will always remember that.” 

Howery adds that it’s “a crazy psychological game” that Black parents “have to play” when it comes to raising their children in the U.S.; but We Grown Now shows that struggle with empathy and hope.

“I love the fact that this movie does this in a beautiful way,” Howery says. “It’s so beautiful. It helps me get back to the innocence.” 

We Grown Now is available to watch now in select theaters.