February 21, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the predominantly African American cast of characters, who are mostly in their late teens and early 20s, represent the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: The main characters have to decide if they’ll go to college or do other things with their lives.
Culture Audience: “Premature” will appeal to viewers looking for a well-acted African American story, but the movie recycles the same, often-negative clichés about young black people in urban settings.
Here’s the thing about movies with predominantly African American casts: Too many of them show black people in crime-ridden areas, where they’re at risk of being criminals too, if they aren’t criminals already. There’s at least one single mother who’s constantly yelling at her kid(s), perpetuating the “angry black woman” image and the image that black men abandon their kids. These are tired and lazy stereotypes that are perpetuated by too many filmmakers, even African American filmmakers.
The reality is that African Americans are much more diverse that what’s depicted in movies. Most African Americans aren’t poor and aren’t criminals. Most African American men aren’t deadbeat losers. Most African American women aren’t single mothers by the time they’re 21.
The challenge for filmmakers is to show more of that diversity and stop falling back on overused tropes that fuel a lot of damaging racist agendas. That doesn’t mean dismissing the very real struggles of African Americans, because these struggles need to be shown on screen. But there’s no creativity in doing that over and over and ignoring many other aspects of African American life that aren’t about criminal activity or unplanned pregnancies.
With all that said, the African American drama “Premature” shows hints of breaking out of those confining boxes, even though it falls into the same clichés seen in so many other movies about young African Americans in a big city. Directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green, “Premature” (his second feature film) is about two New York City residents in their late teens who have reached that post-high-school point in their lives when they’re deciding their goals and career aspirations. They unexpectedly fall in love, and their future plans might be affected by this romance.
Ayanna (played by Zora Howard, who wrote the “Premature” screenplay with Green) is a pretty, thoughtful and somewhat shy woman who is an aspiring poet. She’s headed to Bucknell University (a private liberal arts college in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania) in the fall. But, for now, she’s enjoying her last summer before becoming a college student. Her circle of female friends seem to have no plans for college and talk in Ebonics, which is why Ayanna is different from them. One of her friends is an obnoxious, foul-mouthed single mother named Tenita (played by Alexis Marie Wint), who’s always yelling at her daughter. The Tenita character is such a cringeworthy “ghetto” stereotype.
Isaiah (played by Joshua Boone) is an aspiring musician/producer, who’s getting some knowledge and experience by hanging out at a small recording studio frequented by local artists who are also seeking to make it big someday. Isaiah is confident, friendly and a lot more respectful than some of his trash-talking friends who see women as nothing more than sexual conquests.
Ayanna and Isaiah first see each other on a basketball court. They lock eyes, as the central couple always does in a romantic drama, and they strike up a conversation. Ayanna plays hard to get, but eventually she and Isaiah start dating each other. She tells him from the beginning that she’s going to Bucknell in the fall, but they decide they’ll figure out their relationship as they go along.
Ayanna lives in a cramped Harlem apartment with her single mother Sarita (played by Michelle Wilson), who has a somewhat tense relationship with Ayanna. It’s clear that Ayanna doesn’t care for her mother’s taste in boyfriends, and the current boyfriend is no exception. The boyfriend isn’t abusive, but Ayanna seems to resent that he takes up space when he’s there visiting. At any rate, Ayanna can’t wait to move out and have her own place.
Shortly after Ayanna and Isaiah become lovers, their relationship hits a jealousy bump in the road. One evening, he and Ayanna are spending some time playing cards with friends when a young white woman who’s close to their age shows up unannounced and insists on speaking to Isaiah in private. By the way she’s acting, it’s very easy to see that she and Isaiah have been “more than friends.”
When Isaiah comes back in the room, the normally quiet Ayanna explodes with hostility and asks Isaiah who the other woman was and what his relationship is to her. Isaiah is taken aback at Ayanna’s jealousy and admits that it was a woman he’d been sleeping with, but their relationship ended before he met Ayanna. He just didn’t tell the other woman that he was dating someone new, and she found out through other people, which is why she was upset with him. Ayanna accepts Isaiah’s explanation, but she starts to wonder if he’s the type of person who plays games with the women he dates. She pulls back a little from him and decides that since she’s going away to college soon, it’s not worth investing her heart with him.
On another night, at a house party that Ayanna goes to without Isaiah, a young man ask her to dance. Feeling like she’s technically single, Ayanna starts grinding on the guy while they’re dancing. Unbeknownst to her, Isaiah has shown up at the party too. She doesn’t see him, but he sees her grinding on another man. Looking visibly hurt, Isaiah leaves the party. The next time he sees Ayanna, it’s his turn to be irritated with her because he’s jealous. They argue some more and then make up. And as they spend more time together, they inevitably fall in love.
It’s interesting how much the story coincidentally mirrors writer/director Horace B. Jenkins’ early 1980s movie “Cane River,” which was also about two African American young people who fall in love over the summer before the woman in the relationship plans to move away to go to college. In this story, they also have to decide whether to end the relationship or continue it long-distance. (“Cane River,” which was set in Louisiana, was originally going to be released in 1982, but then Jenkins died that year, and the movie was finally released in 2020.)
The biggest difference though is that in “Premature,” something happens that’s a big cliché in love stories about African American teenagers. (Hint: Birth control is not seen or discussed in this movie.) And so, “Premature” is yet another movie that has this cliché, which obviously has a massive effect on the couple’s relationship.
The cast’s realistic acting in “Premature” is what elevates a lot of this not-very-original story, whose ending is very easy to predict because it’s the type of story that’s been told many times on screen already. As a director, Green shows a lot of talent in casting and editing choices. It’s the “Premature” screenplay that’s problematic. (But to its credit, the last half of the “Premature” screenplay is much better than the first half.)
Anyone who thinks this is an original way to portray black teenagers is someone who hasn’t seen a lot of African American films. And let’s face it: There are some people who are more comfortable with certain negative stereotypes of African Americans, even if it’s not a realistic depiction of African Americans overall.
One of the best scenes in the movie has nothing to do with the up-and-down romance of Ayanna and Isaiah. The scene takes place in a recording studio, where Isaiah and other young artists get into a spirited discussion about how much responsibility artists, especially black artists, should have in putting social messages in their art. It’s a great scene because it shows the characters without the caricature-like Ebonics that are in the movie’s other scenes and instead shows the characters talking as well-rounded, intelligent people with diverse points of view, without losing their ethnic pride.
“Premature” doesn’t show Ayanna at college, but that’s the kind of movie that would’ve been more interesting than what “Premature” is. Justin Simien’s 2014 comedy “Dear White People” and Spike Lee’s 1988 musical “School Daze” are two of the rare theatrical-release movies with predominantly African American casts that take place at a university. (It says a lot that these movies were released 26 years apart.) There are millions of African Americans who are college graduates, but a black college student is almost never the lead character in a movie. This is an example of the type of African American who is underrepresented in movies about African Americans.
There are many people in this world who have little to no contact with African Americans, so they get their impressions from what they see on screen. If you were to go by how young black people are depicted in movies, you’d think that young black men mainly aspire to be athletes, entertainers or criminals. There are plenty of hard-working, law-abiding young black people who have different aspirations for professions where they won’t be considered “too old” by the time they’re 35. Let’s see more of those young people depicted in movies. Unfortunately, “Premature” stays in that predictable zone and doesn’t take the types of diverse, creative risks that are very much needed in telling African American stories in cinema.
IFC Films released “Premature” in New York City and Los Angeles on February 21, 2020. The movie’s U.S. theatrical release expands to more cities in subsequent weeks.