Jurnee Smollett on Raising Black Boys Who Are in Touch with Their Emotions

Raising a Black boy in America is one of the hardest challenges. There’s a desire to protect them from society while allowing them to become the fierce kings their heritage deems them to be. Jurnee Smollett is finding the balance for her 7-year-old son, Hunter Zion Bell, to grow into his royal power. “For me, I want to protect his light, his joy and that inner warrior,” she tells EBONY.

This delicate parallel is explored in her new movie, We Grown Now. The indie film focuses on two boys on the brink of adolescence navigating life, family and friendship. “One of the themes in the film that I love is this intimacy and beautiful friendship that these little boys have and their emotions that they wear right there on their chests,” Smollett shares.

“I don’t think we get enough films like this, in which little boys can just be themselves: they can cry, laugh, be disobedient and flawed and feel fearless.” Smollett advocates for more imagery of young Black boys in this manner. “I want my son to see more representation of himself.”

In the month we celebrate mothers, Smollett shares her candid thoughts on raising a Black boy in America and how she’s allowing her own son to embrace his emotions and self-worth.

EBONY: Your latest film is about young boys coming of age and dealing with real-life emotions of friendship and brotherhood. You are raising a young Black boy. How did this movie affect and touch you as a mom?

Jurnee Smollett: I think that was probably one of the biggest reasons I took on the project because it moved me so much as a mom of, at the time, a 5-year-old Black boy. While I don’t have the same situation as Delores, connecting to her divorce plight and being a single working mom raising these babies, I know that I’m still raising a black boy in America, and I want to protect my son’s leadership. I don’t want to beat that down so much and make him so obedient that he’s no longer a leader. And yet, how do you do that and also get him to understand the harsh realities of the world that he’s growing up in? So, I really connected with my character, Dolores on on a very deep level.

It can sometimes be a stigma for Black men to show their emotions. How are you teaching your young son to be comfortable with expressing himself?

I have four brothers. And I’ve watched all of them. I’ve watched my friends and the men I’ve loved in my life struggle with the toxic masculinity that society, the patriarchy—whatever you want to call it—has put on Black men. With my son, it’s interesting. He’s competitive; he loves sports; he’s driven; he’s creative. He loves math. I’m trying to protect that energy and create a space for him to express himself. The key to all of this stuff is just the ability to do that: to communicate and name the emotion when he’s having a big emotion. When he’s feeling something, I really try to just talk him through it. I want him to be able to say, “I am this. I am upset. I don’t feel good,” or “I’m angry that this person did this to me.” If he cries, I want to create a safe space for him to do that. And while I can’t protect him from the things the world puts on him, I can give him the tools to navigate that.

What is your greatest dream for your son? And your fear?

I try not to give too much attention to my fears because I believe in the power of manifestation. But we live in America. My hope for him is that I can expose him to all the different colors in life and all the different possibilities. Then I can protect his dreams so he can maintain being the dreamer: to give him the tools to become the best version of himself and reach his potential. I believe we’re all born with something to work on and something to work with. And I believe in our higher power. I want to make him a whole person.

In your own words, how do you describe the film and your role?

The film is a coming-of-age story about two little boys in Chicago growing up in Cabrini Green in 1992 with Michael Jordan and The Bulls and all the life happening around them. Over the course of a school year, when they lose a peer, we see how life begins to shift and change, affecting them and their friendship. I play Delores, Malik’s mom. She is a single working mom just trying to hold on to life, living paycheck to paycheck and trying to protect her babies and take care of them. She is afraid of her children changing and growing and what comes with that change, but in essence, she must reconnect with her ability to dream of a world outside her current situation. Like her mom, played by the beautiful S. Epatha Merkerson, says, “These babies won’t grow unless you grow.” That’s the arc of Delores, having the courage to fly.

In the film, there’s a tradition of celebrating her father’s birthday every year. What are some of your family traditions that that have been passed down to you that you still follow?

Thanksgiving, which we now call Indigenous Peoples or Great Gratitude Day, is a huge holiday. It falls on my mom’s birthday every six years or so. Generally, any excuse to celebrate life and gather around the kitchen table is a huge tradition in my family. And obviously, celebrating my mom’s life is the best excuse of all. Cooking is a big, big part of my family’s traditions. And we’re very competitive with it. Food, gathering, cooking, dancing, Paul Newman salad dressing and Stevie Wonder. You know, you got the salad, the music player and some big debate around the kitchen table.

Updated: May 11, 2024 — 9:02 am