Young actors Blake Cameron James and Gian Knight Ramirez light up the big screen in a new coming-of-age drama, titled “We Grown Now.” Set in the early 1990s in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects, these two young men face the everyday challenges of friendship while growing up in the decaying, and neglected neighborhood during that era. 

After a soft premier in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago on April 19, the film premiered to audiences nationwide on April 26. The movie is directed by Chicago filmmaker Minhal Baig, whose resume includes TV writing credits on Ramy and Bojack Horseman. The cast features  the West Side’s own Lil Rel Howery, along with award-winning actresses S. Epatha Merkerson and Jurnee Smollett, who is also listed as an executive producer for the film. Chicago-based photographer Danielle A. Scruggs also did unit stills on the film.

The TRiiBE got a chance to talk to the young stars of “We Grown Now” during a 10-minute media availability before the national debut of the film. Both seemed excited about the film, and grateful for the opportunity to work with such great actors. In the film, 12-year-old Ramirez — a Chicago native —  plays the role of Eric, son of Howery’s single father character, Jason. 

Dolores, played by Smollett, is a single mother of two, including 13-year- old James’ character, Malik. 

James’ career started in 2022, playing the role of Daniel in a holiday film titled “The Sound of Christmas” on BET+, featuring a cast of  Michael Anthony, Draya Michele and Ne-Yo.

Ramirez is making his big screen debut with “We Grown Now,” and delivers with an impactful performance. These brothers may be young, but their acting chops are real. 

The chance to work with such an experienced and decorated cast was an opportunity the two young actors found useful for now, and for the future. When working with Smollett, James expressed how helpful she was, and how she would give him little “nuggets” of advice often. “It was definitely a big learning experience,” he told us. 

Jurnee Smollett in WE GROWN NOW. Courtesy of Participant. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Ramirez, who had a chance to work closely with Howery while filming, remembers advice from the Chicago entertainer. 

“Your emotions should be like a roller coaster,” Ramirez said, remembering what Howery told him.

Lil Rel Howery in WE GROWN NOW. Courtesy of Participant. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

A roller coaster of emotions would be accurate describing this movie. The film highlights the beauty of Chicago culture with scenes of the boys riding the “L,” the boys running through the world renowned Art Institute, and even collecting mattresses to jump in the parking lots of the apartment complex. The movie also takes a moment to highlight the budding Chicago Bulls 1990s dynasty, a phenomenon that not only impacted the city, but the world. 

The film also centers the darkness of poverty. One scene in particular, Dolores (Smollett) is seen walking her son Malik (James) home.. Upon reaching their building, they find out that a shooting had occurred. In this part of the movie, filmmakers chose to highlight the real death of young Dantrell Davis, a 7-year-old who was shot and killed in Cabrini-Green in 1992. The results of a stray bullet from a gang feud. 

Learning about the real death of Davis was an eye opener for James. 

“Honestly, before I came up to Chicago to start filming, I had no idea about the tragic shooting of Dantrell. I’m all the way from Alabama, and I just never heard of it. So that’s definitely probably the biggest thing that I learned, because of how important it is,” he told The TRiiBE

The young actors show incredible range, being able to navigate through the emotional ebbs and flows of the film. This movie is a tearjerker; James and Ramirez also have the advanced skills to bring the water works on cue. 

“I just thought about something that could happen that will make me [feel], like, destroyed,” Ramirez told us.

When approaching emotional scenes, James said, “A lot of times, you have to pull from a real experience that you’ve had or, you know, use your imagination.”

Blake Cameron James and Gian Knight Ramirez in WE GROWN NOW. Courtesy of Participant. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

James also alluded to a new show he’s involved with. While he couldn’t give much detail, he said that it’s sure to be very “emotional” as well. The world might be in for a treat, as these two could possibly be a glimpse into the next generation of great acting.

is a culture correspondent with The TRiiBE.