TV & Movies

For Jurnee Smollett, Life Imitates Art

Her new film, We Grown Now, tells a story of Black childhood that she’s been wanting to see.

Jurnee Smollett talks to Bustle about family, her son, and Black joy.
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Jurnee Smollett’s first date was a family affair. At 18, she’d gotten someone’s number “randomly, on the street” and agreed to go out with him — she’d been banned from dating until she was legally an adult. Her four brothers didn’t love the idea, and literally tagged along, unbeknownst to the guy. “We went to a Johnny Rockets or something,” Smollett, now 37, tells Bustle over Zoom, laughing at the memory. “And they were just over in the corner. I kid you not. Man, they wouldn’t let me go on this date without them!”

If it all sounds like the makings of a sitcom, well, in some ways it was. The six Smollett siblings — Jurnee lands in the middle — starred together on ABC’s 1994 series On Our Own and were especially close as their stay-at-home mother, Janet, homeschooled them together. But life wasn’t without challenges. For one thing, money was tight. A young Jurnee used her acting income to help make ends meet, and before her parents separated, her late father, Joel, noticed her math skills and taught her to be the family bookkeeper.

“We struggled growing up, but we had each other,” says the actor, who at 10 starred in the critically acclaimed Eve’s Bayou opposite Samuel L. Jackson, a job that followed roles on Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper and Full House. “There was that dynamic of ‘We’re all we’ve got, so we’re going to take care of each other.’”

These are the kind of stories I don’t get to see enough. I want to see more of them. And I want my son and my niece to have these sorts of stories.

Family bonds are central themes in her transcendent new ’90s-set movie, We Grown Now (in theaters nationwide April 26). Smollett, who also served as an executive producer, stars as Dolores, a single mother whose 10-year-old son, Malik, urges her toward a brighter future. “Dolores hasn’t really been dreaming in a while, and she learns to dream again from her son,” she says. The story is set against the backdrop of tragedy, the real life shooting death of 7-year-old Dantrell Davis in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing project, where the film is set.

In yet another parallel to the film, Smollett, who is divorced from musician Josiah Bell, is raising their 7-year-old son, Hunter, on her own. “When I gave birth to my son, I experienced such a miraculous transformation in understanding I would no longer be my former self. And the death of that former self gave life to this new self,” she says. “And so this process of destruction and creation in all of our lives, I think if we don’t fight it, if we actually embrace it and ride those waves, it makes for a beautiful surrender.”

Below, she talks about single motherhood, raising a Black son in America, and her own coming of age.

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There’s a scene in the movie where your character’s mother [played by S. Epatha Merkerson] urges Dolores to reach for a better life, saying that if she doesn’t grow, her babies won’t either. You yourself have said “Only a parent who is healed and whole will enable their child to be healed and whole.” How did you come to that understanding?

I have an amazing village of strong women who work and raise babies and try to do the impossible of pursuing what you love without neglecting those you love. I’m in that walk right now. I watched my mom raise six kids as a single Black mom.

Before I had my son, one of my mentors, Alfre Woodard, gave me a book called [Whole Child/Whole Parent]. It changed my life. It’s essentially about how you have to make sure you’re a whole, functioning human being. By not doing that, by thinking “I’m going to sacrifice this for my kid; I’m not going to do this because I’ve got to do this for my kid,” you’re actually hurting them in the long run. Because if we do not take care of ourselves, we’re not able to be present. We’re not able to enjoy our time with them. We’re not able to play. We’re always grumpy. So with Dolores, that was a concept we honed in on.

This is a family run by women. Did that mirror your experience?

Yeah, absolutely. My parents separated when I was very young. But even prior to that, it was very much a household of “What mommy says [goes].” And Dolores was raised in a household where her father was absent. So I’m very familiar with growing up in a single-Black-woman-led household and what that feels like. That’s me now. I’m raising my son. You’ve got these babies, and you’re trying to protect their joy and raise them to be their whole selves. But you’ve got all this fear of the reality of the world, in rearing children in general, and then the weight of rearing Black children in America.

There’s a scene where the two boys cut school and go to the museum, and they’re just so full of joy. And then Malik comes home, having spread his wings, and his mother is terrified and furious.

Yeah, I remember a moment with my mom when that happened. I was 16, and I was newly driving. I was working. I was helping pay the bills at home, so I thought I was grown. And after work, I went to Universal to see a movie with some friends. I didn’t tell her. When I came home, oooh! It was probably one of the more furious moments she’s had with me. “Why didn’t you tell me where you were? Where were you?” The whole thing.

I was older than Malik, but I didn’t understand. Like, “What’s she tripping about?” Now I understand that mama-bear fear. And for her, it’s traumatic, because she doesn’t ever want to know the pain that Annette Freeman has to feel, having lost Dantrell Davis.

The film also shows how, in some ways, our siblings raise us. And you once said, “I have these four brothers who thought they were my dad.”

They still do! But we were parentified children a bit, too. I’ve worked since I was 10 months old. My mom and dad came from poverty. My oldest brother was born in Lefrak City, the high rises in [Queens] New York, their version of a Cabrini-Green. That’s what excited me so much about this film, being able to see Black childhood onscreen and the innocence and creativity of it. Their innocence isn’t tampered with yet. These are the kind of stories I don’t get to see enough. I want to see more of them. And I want my son and my niece to have these sorts of stories.

This is a coming-of-age story, where these kids are moving from complete innocence to an awareness that the world they’ve always known can change. Do you remember a similar coming-of-age moment for you?

It probably had to do with my parents’ separation and feeling like the world I knew no longer existed. I grew up in that moment. Before he left the house, my dad taught me how to take care of the bills, which is probably hard for people to understand, but I loved math. So when I was 11, he taught me how to handle accounts and all these real grown-up things.

Does it impact your approach to money now, the fact that you were financially literate so young?

Oh, without a doubt. We didn’t come from wealth. But I wouldn’t change it, because it kept me very grounded. Yes, I am very responsible with the financial side of my life. I know where everything’s spent; I’m checking on things all the time.

I think my son will not experience that, but I also don’t want to raise an entitled or privileged child, so I very much teach him the importance of financial responsibility and security. To whom much is given, much is expected.

Smollett with Blake Cameron James, who plays Malik.@jurneesmollett / Instagram

The movie does such a beautiful job of bringing the past into the present through the grandmother’s eyes. And you’ve talked about this concept of “blood memory,” of feeling connected to the experience of your ancestors. Thinking about your identity — your father was Jewish, your mother is Black — is “blood memory” only inherited trauma, or can it be something else?

Absolutely not! Are you kidding me? My people were kings and queens. I know the spirit of conquering things and surviving and thriving amid challenges. That’s in my blood. We come from mighty people.

What I mean by “blood memory” is yes, my people have been through a lot, but clearly we’re incredible survivors because I’m here. I’m drawn to stories that contribute to the cinematic canon in a way that pays tribute to that incredible human will. So blood memory is not just about the trauma. Blood memory is to be celebrated. It’s to be owned. And it’s to be proud of.

I know you’ve had incredible highs and lows these past few years, losing friends and gaining amazing accolades. It’s just been a ride. Where are you on that journey?

I’m a deeply spiritual person, and I think the process of life is the ebb and flow. You’ve got to ride the waves. And I’m also a Libra, so I appreciate balance. Yes, I’ve been devastated by losing some people, but I also hold on to what I had in them, that at least I had them for that time. So where am I at in it all? I’m present. I’m right here. I’m having a conversation with you about a film I’m incredibly proud about. I’m living life. I’m alive.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.