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Minhal Baig's 'We Grown Now' follows two Chicago kids in the early 1990s

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Picture two 10-year-old boys dragging a mattress down the stairs of a high-rise all the way down to the cement below.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE GROWN NOW")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All that matters is if you can jump.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All that matters is if you can jump.

RASCOE: For Malik and Eric, fun is piling mattresses on top of each other and taking a leap.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WE GROWN NOW").

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Cheering).

RASCOE: The new movie, "We Grown Now," is set in 1992 in Cabrini Green, a huge public housing project in Chicago. Cabrini Green made national headlines that fall for gang violence when a 7-year-old was killed on his way to school. "We Grown Now" imagines that time for two young Black boys and their families. There's pain, but also joy and friendship. Minhal Baig wrote and directed the film. I asked her, growing up in Chicago, what she knew about Cabrini Green.

MINHAL BAIG: You know, even as a kid, I was very aware of the public housing projects, but they always felt very far away. And, you know, what I understood from the media at the time was that these places were sites of crime, drugs, gun violence, and it wasn't until I came back to Chicago as an adult and started to meet people who had lived in the high-rises that I started to get a very different picture.

RASCOE: Well, what made you want to focus on them and to have this as the subject of a film?

BAIG: I had moved back to Chicago after my father had passed, and I was reconciling my relationship to a place that had really changed and felt different. And I was interested in exploring this relationship that I had with home. But I wanted to do it in a way that wasn't autobiographical. And I was interested in Cabrini Green because, one, it's one of the most notorious public housing projects in America. And two, it's - it has a very strong community. And it wasn't until when I, you know, started interviewing people from Cabrini Green that I started to see that there was a complicated relationship that they had to this place, that they could hold two truths at the same time, that it was a really difficult place to live. But there was a lot of joy and beauty and community.

RASCOE: A lot of the movie focuses on the legacy of the Great Migration of Black people located in the South, moving up North with hopes for a much better life, and a lot of them ended up in these neighborhoods or housing projects that didn't turn out to be what they had hoped for at first. Tell me about how the Great Migration figures in this movie and the legacy of that.

BAIG: That really emerged from the interviews I was doing. There are families that I interviewed that had lived in Cabrini Green for multiple generations. And when people had first moved in, the projects were very different. It was like a grand social experiment, and there really was this movement to Chicago in search of a better life. And in conducting these interviews and that coming up as a shared experience, I felt that the movie had to explore that as well, especially in the character of Anita who has migrated prior to the events of the film. She's somebody who's lived in two worlds, and Dolores, her daughter, is you know, afraid of moving the family outside of Cabrini Green, and in a sense, they really need each other. Anita is sort of encouraging her daughter to see that life outside of these walls is possible. This movie was very much about memory and migration, about feeling rooted until you're rootless.

RASCOE: This film portrays a wide spectrum of the Black experience - Black joy, some pain, some heartache. But you're not Black. You didn't grow up in Cabrini Green. Did you face any resistance from the people who you were interviewing about telling this story?

BAIG: I thought that I might, but I didn't. Everyone I interviewed was really generous with their time and energy and their stories. And I think one of the things that worked in my favor is that I'm from Chicago. And so I didn't grow up in Cabrini Green or in one of the high-rises, but there was I think an openness and sharing because I come from the same city. I'm not an outsider in that sense. And I really was approaching this process with a lot of curiosity. Like, I don't presume that I know their experience before I talk to people, and the story came organically out of those conversations.

RASCOE: The two boys at the center of this, Malik and Eric - for them, they are - you know, they're just kids, and the city and Cabrini Green itself are kind of like a playground, and there isn't - even though things happen - the police come in some places, violence happens, but it happens off screen - they seem very much insulated and innocent. And in a way, you don't often necessarily see that with young Black children in film or on TV, like, just see them as kids even in these circumstances.

BAIG: I think it's so important to see kids like that, kids growing up in the projects, as children. And I really wanted to preserve that in this movie because the people I spoke to - they shared stories of doing things like playing hookie from school and, you know, mattress jumping and the fun that was had. And I think that slices of life like that are, like you're saying, you know, rare to see. But the moments and memories like that, people had that. But kids are incredibly imaginative, no matter where they are, and it felt important that I honor that and really try to convey that visually and give a sense of how resourceful and creative these kids really were.

RASCOE: That's Minhal Baig. She is the director of "We Grown Now," a new movie. Thank you so much for joining us.

BAIG: Thank you so much, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.