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We Grown Now

Content Caution



In Theaters


Home Release Date




Paul Asay

Movie Review


The word says everything and nothing, a word both universal and unique. A simple word, four letters long, and yet it describes a place, a time, a feeling that can transcend language itself.

It’s 1992, and for Malik Johnson, home is Cabrini Green, a notorious housing project on Chicago’s South Side. The boy lives with three women: mother Dolores, grandmother Anita, and annoying little sister Diana. Family pictures are fixed to the whitewashed, concrete-block walls. The faucet drips and drips and drips. Grandma’s orange-yellow curtains hang over the window, billowing like honeyed sunshine.

For as long as Malik can remember, he and Eric have been best friends. They walk to school together. They stare at cracks in the ceiling and imagine they’re stars. Sometimes, they drag an abandoned mattress down to the playground, throw it on top of other abandoned mattresses and take turns jumping. Malik jumps higher than anyone, and he’ll say so.

But as high as he can jump, he can’t leap above the clouds above and around and inside Cabrini Green—the storms pulling at its cinderblocks, tearing at its people.

On Oct. 13, 1992, 7-year-old Dantrell Davis was walking to school with his mother when he was shot and killed. A killer had been aiming for a rival gang member, and the boy got in the way.

The murder was nothing new. Cabrini Green is home to families, yes—but to drug dealers and gang members, too. Guns are everywhere. Death is common. But a 7-year-old boy? The wider world takes notice and demands action. Police start raiding apartments, tearing through homespun treasures in their search for guns and drugs. And Anita feels the sobering, terrifying truth: It’s not safe.

For generations, the word home has come with those three words, too. It’s not safe. Those three words pushed Anita and her late husband out of Tupelo, Mississippi, and into Chicago decades ago. Back then, Cabrini Green felt different—where everyone knew everyone, where its parks and squares felt like one huge front porch. It felt like home should feel.

But where can the family go now? Options are so limited, if they exist at all. And for Malik? Cabrini Green is all he’s ever known. Despite its dangers and drugs and dripping faucets, it is home.

Here he laughs. Here he jumps. Here … he flies.

Positive Elements

In the early 1990s, when this film takes place, Cabrini Green was a byword for inner-city blight. Folks watching the news in Idaho or South Carolina or Arizona would the projects and dismiss it as a wasteland of poverty and crime.

We Grown Now reminds us of a truth those headlines hid: Those projects were filled with families. And most moms and dads living there were just trying to raise their kids.

Dolores is doing her best. A single mom, she works like crazy to keep food on the table (for her two children and her mom, Anita), and she still finds time to cook that food (most of the time), keep those kids in line (again, most of the time) and listen to Malik’s terrible jokes. (“How do bears keep cool? With bear conditioning.”) In critical moments, we see the weight of motherhood pull on her. She’s heartbroken that she can’t protect her kids from all of Cabrini Green’s ills. But she does her best.

And Dolores’ own mother, Anita, does her best to help, too. She cooks if Dolores works late. When all that weight that Dolores carries seems set to pull her under, Anita swoops in with aid, advice and even a little kick in the rear. Whatever other issues Malik needs to navigate, his family is a constant source of strength and love.

Eric, Malik’s best friend, also comes from a single-parent home. His mother died when he was quite young, it seems, leaving his sometimes preoccupied father in charge. But while Eric’s dad (Jason) might feel aloof at times, he takes his role of father seriously: He’s extremely proud of Amber, Eric’s older sister, who’s set to be the first member of their family to go to college. He has the same dreams for Eric, too.

As for Malik and Eric themselves—well, they’re kids. They get in trouble. They sometimes disobey, as we’ll get into. But they love their respective families. And though they’d never say it, they love each other. And their friendship has perhaps inoculated each of them from Cabrini Green’s worst vices.

Spiritual Elements

Malik and Eric, along with their families, attend Dantrell Davis’ funeral. The pastor says that Dantrell’s sad fate reminds him of another child—Jesus—“born in the projects of east Nazareth.” He mentions that Jesus’ own mother probably struggled “mightily with the knowledge that she could not save her Son from that great destiny that was before Him,” (words that clearly hit home for Dolores), but the pastor adds that suffering and persecution are part of the Christian story. They were a huge part of Jesus’ story, and they led him—as they lead us all—up to Calvary. “What happened on Calvary was not the end of the story, but only the beginning,” he concludes.

After the service, Eric and Malik talk about spiritual matters. Malik expresses his own hope that Dantrell is in a better place. But Eric has his doubts. “What if he just don’t go anywhere?” Eric asks. “What if he just, done?”

Malik prays with his family over dinner. After he and Eric jump on mattresses, Malik says that he jumped so high that it “was the closest I got to God!” Several people pray for the well-being of others. There’s a reference to Noah’s ark.

Eric and Malik have another friend who goes by the name of “Slug.” When Malik learns that Slug’s real name is Samuel, Slug explains that he was named for a prophet. Malik laughs. “Your mom named you after a prophet, and you’re still broke!”

Sexual Content

Malik and Slug seem to have a crush on their teacher. Malik also spots a woman on the ‘L’ (Chicago’s metro train) who, he confesses to Eric, he’s fallen in love with. When Eric encourages Malik to confess his “true feelings” to the woman (probably about 20 years his senior), Malik at first refuses, saying that their love “just wasn’t meant to be.” But finally, he does stand up—smoothing his hair as he walks to the back of the train car—and tells the amused-if-flattered woman that he loves her.

Violent Content

We don’t see Dontrell’s murder, but we do see plenty of the aftermath. Police pull up around Malik and Eric’s elementary school, and one apparent suspect is roughly frisked. (Later, Malik clinically tells us how Dontrell died.)

After, when Chicago’s mayor announces a crackdown on lawlessness in Cabrini Green, police raid Anita and Dolores’ apartment (apparently without a warrant). Officers roughly push Dolores out of the way a couple of times (as she tries to tell them they have the wrong place), and they knock over and smash a couple of pictures and knick-knacks. After they leave, the family discovers that the treasured family curtains—curtains made by Anita’s own hands when she and her husband moved there decades before—have been ripped. Malik is clearly shaken, and he tells Eric that he wants to (using stronger language) kick the policemen’s rear for what they’ve done.

One kid shoves another. The latter trips over a backpack and gets injured. We hear that Eric’s mother died. Dolores insists on celebrating her father’s birthday, even though he died five years ago. Someone describes how, decades before, a family business was burned down.

Crude or Profane Language

A smattering of mostly mild profanities, including a few uses each of “a–,” “d–n” and “h—.” God’s name is misused five times, twice with the word “d–n,” and we hear someone say “jeez” as well.

Drug and Alcohol Content

We hear that Cabrini Green is a haven for drug use and sales, but we don’t actually see any of either. The closest we get is when a kid encourages Malik and Eric to try on a diamond-encrusted watch. Malik walks away, but Eric does try it on—impressed, obviously, with the kid’s wealth. When Eric tells Malik that “money is money,” Malik says that the kid doesn’t even have a real job. He just “stands on a street corner looking out for his brother.”

Other Negative Elements

During class one day, when Malik, Eric and the rest of the room are watching a documentary, Malik and Eric ask to go to the bathroom and … never come back. The two elementary-school kids ditch the rest of the day, sneak on the ‘L’ and speed into downtown Chicago, where they spend the afternoon at Chicago’s Art Institute. (Malik also sneaks the hat off a sleeping man on the ‘L’ and tries it on before returning it to its owner.)

Cutting class, sneaking onto a train without a ticket and gallivanting downtown would all be enough to land this afternoon in “Other Negative Elements.” But they also did this just days after Dontrell was killed. Both Dolores and Jason are frantic with worry by the time the boys return. “How am I supposed to keep you safe when I don’t know where you are or what you’re doing?” she demands of Malik.

While in the Art Institute, the boys examine “Train Station,” a 1935 painting by Walter Ellison depicting the Great Migration (when millions of Black Americans moved north, especially to cities such as Chicago). We see segregated bathrooms in the painting—and Malik bristles at the sight of a Black worker carrying luggage for white passengers. (“They can carry their own bags!” he says.)

Malik tries to help Eric cheat on a test. (They’re caught and punished.) Malik catches a spider and taunts his sister with what would’ve happened to her if he hadn’t. (It involves the spider laying eggs in her ears.) A joke involves boogers.


“There’s poetry in everything,” Anita tells Dolores one night. “Could be nature, could be speech, could be a bird.”

Could even be Cabrini Green.

We Grown Now is a work of cinematic poetry—a look at inner-city turmoil and poverty through the forgiving, knowing eyes of a child.

Racism lurks behind much of the movie’s tensions, and yet I don’t think that it ever utters the words white or Black. Pulled from a small snippet of time, the movie begs its viewers to think of Anita’s life before, and Malik and Eric’s life after. And even though Cabrini Green was torn down long ago—its last real vestiges vanished, the movie tells us, in 2011—We Grown Now reminds us all of the people who lived there, the stories that grew there, and the overarching tapestry made by them all, full of hope and heartbreak, shattered dreams and answered prayers.

Yes, this film has a few issues. More language than you’d perhaps expect in a PG film, and certainly Malik and Eric get into their share of trouble. But We Grown Now offers resonant messages about faith and family; about prisons of circumstance and how we struggle to break out of them. And it does so with such warmth and courage that, by the time the credits roll, you feel like you’re a part of Malik’s family, too.

Home is a strange, strange word. In We Grown Now, home can feel like those billowing yellow-orange curtains, mutely giving voice to hearth and hope and family. It can sound like the endless drip of a broken faucet—a faucet that the landlords refuse to fix.

It can feel, perhaps, like that abandoned, dirty mattress dragged out to the playground, a mattress that more than likely none of us would dare lay on. But a mattress that allows two young boys to jump.

To fly.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.