Black boy friendships deserve more screen time, and We Grown Now is here to showcase why.

The coming-of-age film, set in Chicago in 1992, explores the relationship between two friends Malik and Eric as they navigate the city that they call home all while detailing their experiences and the hardships of growing up in public housing, including the aftermath of a tragedy that shapes their childhood “just as they’re learning to fly.”

“I was sent the script and I was a fan of our filmmaker’s [Minhal Baig] first film, Hala, and was excited initially and intrigued because I wanted to know what she was going to do next,” Jurnee Smollett, who serves as both a star an executive producer for the film, told Blavity’s Shadow and Act

“Then, when I read it and the script had me in tears by the end of it, which is hard to do, I was excited to not just contribute as a cast member, but also on the producing team because these are the kinds of filmmakers that I want to help usher forward,” she continued. “I want to grow together and Minhal was so open to that experience, that collaborative experience. And, I want to see more of these stories. How many times do we get to just tell the story about little Black boys and their friendship?”

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Similarly, Chicago native Lil Rel Howery says joining the cast of We Grown Now was a no-brainer and the perfect opportunity to pay homage to the city that raised him as he recalls once being in the shoes of the character, Eric, whom he plays a father to.

“I love the fact that we’re normalizing these residents and families from Cabrini-Green,” he said. “My favorite scenes are the ones of them just eating dinner together when a grandmother is telling, you know, I always call it the Great Migration Chicago story. Everybody came from Mississippi to me…like all of us had a story in our family.  But I just love the tone of that. It’s the calmness in the grandmother’s voice. The way Jurnee steals different scenes. One of my favorite shots in the movie is when Jurnee hugs her mom and then you see Blake [Cameron James, who plays Malik] lying down and you’re just seeing generations of affection and love. Nobody talks about that. About those families in housing projects actually being families and not like this experiment they’ve always kind of tried to talk about families in the projects as.”

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Howery echoed Smollett’s sentiment about the necessity of shining a light on stories about Black boyhood.

“When I saw it, I cried a lot watching this,” he recalled. “It was very interesting because it wasn’t necessary for the scenes you would think. It was when they were walking through The Art Institute [of Chicago], right? And this is just more or less, a beautiful shot when the people are just standing still and it’s just them [Eric and Malik] experiencing the Art Institute on their own and seeing it for whatever their lens is.”

He continued, “I remember that was one of the things I used to do with my mom. [We’d] actually, go to the Art Institute [of] Chicago and that was a thing. I think it’s why I got emotional watching this movie. It just made me remember innocent times and I grew up in the ’90s when everything was going on. I remember when Dantrell [Davis] was killed. I remember all of that and I do remember that it was almost like before that it was a little more calm. My summers felt like the summer–you know, the block parties, somebody opening up the fire hydrant and everybody getting wet…we didn’t even know we were poor. We went to the candy lady’s house, we got our snowballs, it was just a different time. And then when that happened, summers changed because our parents were a little more worried, and everybody was a little more scared. Everything changed. Friends started joining gangs and that was the reality of it.”

Although she didn’t grow up in Chicago, Smollett detailed a similar time when working on this project made her emotional, being able to meet Dantrell’s mother nearly 30 years after her son was shot and killed as she walked him to school, which is detailed in the film.

“When I met Miss Annette Freeman, the mom of the late Dantrell Davis…this woman is so beautiful and her spirit is so glorious and divine, and I have to say she has left such an impact on me,” said Smollett. “That initial encounter we had, we hugged, and when I tell you, when we shot this film it had been maybe almost 30 years since he was killed and that emotion was still so fresh. I think, for me, to try and do honor and justice to the story and show us in our full selves, our joy, our struggles, our flaws, our dreams, our fear of dreaming. For that reason, amongst other reasons, I’m really proud of the film.”

We Grown Now, starring Jurnee Smollett, S. Epatha Merkerson, Blake Cameron James, Gian Ramirez and Lil Rel Howery is now in theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, with nationwide expansion coming soon.