“Premature” is the provocative sophomore feature from Rashaad Ernesto Green (“Gun Hill Road”), headlined by a breakthrough performance by Zora Howard, who co-wrote the screenplay with Green. Adapted from their award-winning 2008 short of the same name, the coming-of-age drama serves as both an ode to a vanishing piece of New York City and a universal story of love among black youth.
“We asked ourselves what we felt was missing in present-day black cinema, and we felt there was an overabundance of black films with narratives driven by themes of black victimization, black fear, and black pain,” Green said. “Although we understood the impulse to explore these narratives, we decided instead to explore black life and black love. In the current cinematic climate, we viewed simply telling a young black love story as a radical act.”
They trusted their instincts and culled from their own life experiences as black Harlemites who were once young and in love, believing that their truths reflected those of so many other black people, who have felt underrepresented.
“We grew up in families and communities where love was the thing that was reflected most,” said Howard, who is also an award-winning spoken-word artist. “It doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges growing up in a black body in this country, and the kind of threats that you are consistently under. But the life force that is feeding into us is the love of family, of one another, and the love of place, of community, and the neighborhood.”
The short film, in which Howard also starred, was the story of a 14-year-old Bronx girl who gets pregnant and must deal with it within her family as well as her community. It performed well on the festival circuit, and was distributed by HBO.
Green had no intention of expanding it into a feature. But over the years, he and Howard talked about collaborating again. As they kept returning to themes from the short film, the script began to take shape.
“Premature,” the feature, follows 17-year-old Ayanna who falls for handsome twentysomething musician Isaiah (Joshua Boone) during her last summer in Harlem, before she heads to college out of state. She isn’t necessarily aware of being on a journey toward self actualization, but she’s thrust into a situation that forces her to grow whether she’s ready to or not.
Shot in September 2018, the collaboration premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and received two Film Independent Spirit Award nominations. Green also received the Spirit Awards’ Someone to Watch award.
Collaborative writing is an idea almost guaranteed to scare off many writers. Green and Howard said that while there were inevitable clashes, their long-established mutual trust ultimately saw them through the process.
“We’ve known each other for a great portion of both of our lives, so when we started working together we had a shorthand already,” Green said. “We live on the same physical block in Harlem, and Zora’s family is kind of like my family away from my own. And so because of that, I think the working atmosphere was quite different than had I not known her as well as I did.”
Howard agreed: “We had no idea how the collaborative process was going to work until we stepped into it. The thing about working with somebody else is that you are forced to look beyond your own perspective, and consider a whole other set of viewpoints, values and history. And that can be magical.”
What resulted is a script that captures uninhibited youth and Ayanna’s world in flux, with a performance by Howard that anchors the film as she portrays a woman experiencing an achingly human journey of self-discovery.
Cinematographer Laura Valladao captures Harlem as a character itself, providing a broader snapshot of the neighborhood long known for its brownstones, intimate jazz clubs, soul food restaurants and African-American heritage — but in the face of gentrification, is beginning to lose much of that character.
Shot on 16mm film on a shoestring budget, Green and his team relied on favors from family and friends, stole shots on subways and streets, and utilized every Harlem resource available.
“We felt that 16mm lent itself to this particular story, and that it would be a dream to shoot on film,” he said. “We wanted to immortalize not only Harlem, but these two young black people and their youthful black bodies within Harlem, especially before it became unrecognizable. And we don’t often see brown and black bodies captured on the medium anymore, and not in this way.”
It is that same awareness and sensitivity that made Green’s feature film debut, “Gun Hill Road,” so absorbing and tender. The film is notable for starring a transgender character portrayed by a transgender person, Harmony Santana. She became the first openly transgender actress to be nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
Ultimately, Green and Howard want “Premature” to be known as a celebration of love between two young black people that also provides an honest view of romance — all without dwelling in the grief, trauma and other pathologies that dog many black films.
“Black life is worth celebrating, lifting up and illuminating, and I want black audiences, especially young black people to see this film and see themselves, and their experiences, their families, their neighborhoods,” Howard said. “We know how important that is, when sitting in the theater — to feel represented, seen. So we hope that yes, that happens for all audiences, but black audiences particularly.”
IFC Films will release “Premature” on Friday, February 21 in NY, LA and select cities and on VOD platforms.