Last year, Reinaldo Marcus Green made a big splash at Sundance with his taut Anthony Ramos-starring thriller Monsters and Men. This year, it’s his brother, Rashaad Ernesto Green‘s time to shine. His feature is called Premature which fans of Green will recognize is the title of his 2008 award-winning short that also starred his same leading lady, co-writer Zora Howard. Only, the two never envisioned their feature project to be such an extension. But when they sat down to work together and develop a script about a love story set in Harlem, that earlier project about a young black girl who learns she’s pregnant and must figure out how that’ll affect her life kept seeping into their writing. Their resulting collaboration is both of those things: a tender love story between Ayanna (Howard) and Isaiah (Joshua Boone), as well as a coming-of-age film that sees Ayanna finding herself at that moment the title hints at: not just before you’re grown-up but when you’re called to grow up before your time.
Premature begins and ends with the bustling sounds of New York City’s trains. The journey between, the one that takes place amidst the harried noise of a crowded subway and the buzzing trains at an empty MTA North station, is so anchored in the rhythms of the city that it manages to immediately tell you where you’re at. If you’ve ever taken the 1 up to Harlem, you’ve met the group of girls the films opens with. “They bring such light in New York,” Green, who’s mother is Puerto Rican and grew up nearby in the Bronx, shared with Remezcla. “Getting off at 145th street you hear and see all kinds of things that may be shocking to an outsider but if you really listen there are some fantastic conversations going on. I really wanted to make New York a character and embrace that energy between young women.” Joining Howard as part of the cast are Alexis Marie Wint, Tashiana Washington, and Imani Lewis, actresses and performers who bring to life this tight-knit group of friends who gossip, ogle, and hang out together the summer before Ayanna heads off to college.
Following a meet-cute at a basketball court (with its requisite discussion about basketball shorts and what dangles therein), Ayanna and Isaiah, an aspiring musician, soon start hanging out. Sun-dappled and just as interested in the flush of first love as the recent If Beale Street Could Talk, Premature marries the grit of New York City with a lyrical sensibility. Ayanna is a poet whose words we’re constantly overhearing. Those voice-over moments weren’t in the original treatment of the movie. But, as Green explained, it became necessary as they were editing the picture: “We realized that we wanted more access to her. We wanted more access to her interiority. She doesn’t speak a lot. It wasn’t enough to just see her thinking. We wanted to hear a little bit of what was going on inside. Knowing that Zora is an incredible poet I asked her to write some more poetry and record it into her iPhone. We used 90 percent of the stuff that she gave us. It was just—her poetry is incredible! I was concerned that it would get too ethereal and not real and raw New York. But it just worked. So we embraced it.”
That kind of organic approach to filmmaking has served Green well. He’s learned to trust his instincts and follow his passions. And while the process of making the follow-up to his first feature Gun Hill Road (2011) has taken close to a decade, he’s optimistic about the present outlook for black and brown directors. “I would never question what you want to do or what the industry expects of you,” he told us. “I would just wholeheartedly embrace the story that you want to tell. And make it happen by any means necessary. Don’t wait. If you feel like your script is ready: go for it. If you can’t make it for $2 million, then make it for $200,000. That may mean that you have to give up on the dream that Benicio del Toro will star in your film. That may mean that you’ll have to make some sacrifices to get your work down. When you try to follow what seems like a traditional approach to filmmaking is where we get frustrated and our progress is stilted to some extent.”
He echoes much of the advice doled out to filmmakers of color, which can feel both like a burden and a challenge: “Invest in yourself — basically you have to think outside of the box when it comes to financing. You have to be willing to adjust your expectations to make the movie that you can make, not just the movie that you want to make. So long as the story is not compromised, so long as your voice isn’t compromised, just get it done.”
Premature screened as part of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.