Minhal Baig is a Chicago native whose first film, Hala, screened at the 55th Chicago International Film Festival in 2019. We’re thrilled to present the U.S. Premiere of her next feature, the Chicago-set coming-of-age story We Grown Now, for Opening Night of our 59th Festival. We chatted with Minhal about the origin of the story behind We Grown Now, recreating 1990s Cabrini-Green on screen, and her favorite Chicago movies.
How did you first come up with the idea behind We Grown Now?
In 2013, my father passed away. I returned to Chicago to be with my family and grapple with this loss. The question of what to do with our family home, now without my father, came up. This place no longer felt like home to me. I wanted to delve into the concept of home for those whose physical space no longer existed. Although I’d heard of Cabrini-Green while growing up, I didn’t visit until I began talking to former residents. It was these interviews that gave rise to the story of We Grown Now.
We Grown Now is a story of two young boys, Malik and Eric, played by Blake Cameron James and Gian Knight Ramirez. How do you approach directing young actors? What was it like working with Blake and Gian?
Blake and Gian, both exceptionally emotionally intelligent and talented, struck me immediately in their self-tapes as the perfect pair for Malik and Eric. We conducted thorough rehearsals beforehand, ensuring they grasped every scene in the story. I had them wear their character’s coat at the scene’s start, removing it at the end to prevent them from internalizing the experiences. As rehearsals progressed, they increasingly embodied their characters, anchoring their emotions and choices in a profound understanding of who they were portraying.
Can you speak to the process of rendering 1992 Cabrini-Green on screen?
Over several years, I collaborated closely with our executive producer, Carrie Holt de Lama, and locations manager, Maria Roxas, to find the right settings that captured the neighborhood’s essence. We utilized a senior living home constructed around the same time as the high rises, which was later modified in post-production for wider shots. Additional CHA sites were used to evoke the atmosphere of the housing projects. Our production designer, Merje Veski, meticulously crafted a set based on a genuine Cabrini-Green unit blueprint and photographic references. It demanded extensive research and meticulous coordination.
You’ve spoken about home as a theme you were grappling with in the making of this film. What’s it like to bring We Grown Now to Chicago, your hometown and the film’s setting? What do you hope Chicagoans will take away from the film?
The tearing down of the public housing high rises in Chicago is a really heart-wrenching part of the city’s story. It’s not just a physical move, but it’s tied up with a history of segregation and racial inequities in public housing. I hope people walk away from We Grown Now with a stronger grasp of what home means to a place like Cabrini-Green, and also how it resonates in their own lives.
Chicago has been the setting, and a pretty central character, of your first two films. What about the city makes it particularly powerful or unique as a location in film?
Chicago is incredibly beautiful to photograph. This is my second film that I’ve shot here and I’ve continued to find new settings and locations. The crews here are first-class. There’s a sense of community here that I haven’t found anywhere else.
From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Michael Mann’s Thief, Chicago is known for some signature portrayals on the big screen. What are your favorite Chicago movies?
There are so many! Hoop Dreams by Steve James is my favorite.
We Grown Now is screening on Oct. 11 at the Music Box Theatre – Minhal will join in-person for a Q&A following the film.