There is a sort of magic that occurs in those three wistful months just after high school graduation. It’s that short wrinkle in time before we leap eagerly into adulthood, whether heading to college or into some other adventure that will lead us into the next chapter of our lives. In mainstream films, this time is often romanticized. We’ve watched countless movies like Lady Bird, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower as the protagonists get swept up in the wonder of what’s next, and the familiar pain of what will be left behind. Rarely are Black faces at the center of these narratives.
With their rich and thoughtful romantic drama Premature, director Rashaad Ernesto Green and writer/star Zora Howard give us a Black love story set over the course of one summer. It is a narrative filled with lust, love, pain and the desperate hope of youth. Howard stars as Ayanna —a 17-year old Harlem native who spends those last hot New York summer days before college with her girlfriends at the park, and at various late night kickbacks. All set to attend an upstate New York college in the fall, the bold, no-nonsense writer finds herself enamored with Isaiah (Joshua Boone) —a slightly older New York transplant trying to carve out space for himself in the music industry.
From the moment we meet Ayanna on a stuffy subway car with her homegirls, she stands out. Brash and confident, she is as equally intuned with herself as she is with her clique. Quiet at first, she writes furiously in a notebook that never leaves her side. And yet, when prompted, she easily slips into the familiar camaraderie of her girls and their interactions with the young men of the city who are ceaseless with their advances.
Rigid and witty, Ayanna walks through the bustling city with grace, brushing off catcalls and desperate ploys to get her attention. Her innate suspicion of the opposite sex is jolted one day when she encounters Isaiah at the park. Stunned to find each other, the pair embarks on a summer filled with longing, intimacy, vulnerability and a precarious trust.
With elements of Ted Witcher’s 1997 Chicago set- Love Jones, Raafi Rivero’s 72 Hours: A Brooklyn Love Story? and Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, Premature is unapologetically Black. From the toothbrush that Ayanna uses to swoop and gel down her baby hairs, to the rambunctious Spades game that ends in a fight, and the jazz, R&B and hip-hop sprinkled throughout the film’s soundtrack, Premature flows beautifully as a sexual awakening of a young Black woman. But, unlike typical Hollywood romances, Ayanna’s story is no fairytale.
Though Green sits behind the camera, the narrative has a distinctly female voice. From the couple’s first intimate encounters to later moments in their relationship, we watch Ayanna come to an understanding about her sexuality and her body, as she slowly opens her heart to Isaiah, allowing herself to be vulnerable in a way that she refuses to do with anyone else in her life. The sex scenes in particular gaze upon the male and female body equally—a rare (if ever) feat in cinema. After the screening, Howard summarized Ayanna’s experience by saying she was, “not quite ready, but in it, nonetheless.”
Authentically raw — almost to the point where it was painful to watch certain scenes in the film, Green does not ease his audience into Ayanna’s world. This makes the first act of Premature particularly unsettling. We’re left to watch this tiny Black woman navigate the world and all of its predatory elements with her guarded nature and sharp tongue as her only weapons. And yet, that’s what makes Premature so profound. As the end of summer looms, Ayanna is forced to make some tough choices. Those decisions, born out of the hope and fear of first-time love will alter her life forever.
Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 26, 2019.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide