Warning: This story contains mild spoilers for Premature, in theatres February 21.
Premature is a movie and a feeling. It’s being overwhelmed by the heat radiating off the pavement during July in New York City. It’s the stickiness of your skin under your jeans as you go meet your friends for a party. It’s the head rush from the fumes of the nail salon as the sun shines outside. It’s the sweetness of warm Coke mixed with booze, and the freedom of being on a park swing at twilight. It’s the punch drunk happiness of a first kiss when you’re 17, and it’s summer, and life is about to open up to you — for better or for worse.
Directed by Rashaad Ernesto Green, the movie follows Ayanna (Zora Howard), a teenage poet just a few months away from leaving her home in Harlem for her freshman year at a liberal arts college. On the cusp of her last summer in town, she meets Isaiah (Joshua Boone), a charming, charismatic music producer who’s a couple of years older and new to the city. The two fall for each other — hard. But as the passion of the summer gives way to the creeping realization that this relationship might not be as idyllic as it first appeared, Ayanna has to make a choice: Will she choose to take up her own space in this world, or support someone else’s dreams?
It’s a story that’s both incredibly specific to a place and time (2010s Harlem in the height of summer), but universal in its appeal. Everyone has a teenage heartbreak story. But in this case, it’s the routine nature of the plot that makes it groundbreaking: A Black coming-of-age story divorced from racism and violence.
“That's at the core of Premature,” Howard, who co-wrote the script with Green, told Refinery29 in a phone interview. “That's something that Rashaad and I were completely devoted to: Capturing and presenting Black love and Black life that exists outside of death and trauma and destruction. It is an everyday thing for us as well.”
In 1898, Something Good — Negro Kiss became the first-ever depiction of Black love on-screen. The 30-second silent film, recently added for preservation in the National Film Registry, is thought to have been a response to Thomas Edison’s 1896 film, The Kiss, about a white couple. In other words, as long as there have been movies, Black love stories have carved out a place for themselves in the zeitgeist.
Fast-forward nearly a century, and movies like Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and Love Jones kicked off the boom of Black romantic comedies in the 90s. More recently, films like Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, as well as Melina Matsoukas’ Queen & Slim have set love stories between Black protagonists against a backdrop of police brutality and violence.
Premature joins a growing canon of modern Black love stories that sets itself apart from the rom-coms and social justice narratives of the past, showing everyday Black reality that’s on neither extreme end of the spectrum: It's relatable and feels like real life for so many Black women. Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield’s upcoming romantic drama The Photograph fits the mold, as does the former’s HBO series, Insecure. Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight is another example: a quiet, personal coming-of-age tale that doesn’t ignore the context in which people of colour live out their lives in the United States of America, but keeps its focus on the experience it’s trying to reflect.
In fact, Premature stands out in that it tells multiple love stories — some romantic, but many platonic. “It's a love story between a young woman and a young man, but also it's a love story between Ayanna and her girlfriends,” Howard said. “That gang of girls that really are her moral compass. And then there’s the love between Ayanna and her mother and her extended family and the love between Ayanna and her neighbourhood, the blocks that raised her, what she has come to know as home. Then finally the love that Ayanna is finding for herself, and that she's also leaning deeper into choosing herself above all.”
Howard has made a career out of portraying and giving voice to Black women in all their complexity. She’s a multi-disciplinary artist — a writer and actor, but also a playwright. Her second play, STEW, just opened to rave reviews at Page 73 Productions in New York, and centres around three generations of the Turner family gathered in the matriarch’s kitchen, where more than just stew threatens to boil over.
Her commitment to bringing Ayanna to life as a believable woman rather than a symbol or an idea is apparent in every moment of Premature, but particularly in one pivotal scene. The breakup chop is a time-honoured tradition in pop culture, whether it’s Keri Russell’s infamous Felicity haircut post-Ben, or Katy Perry’s 2017 taking a break from Orlando Bloom pixie. But we’ve rarely seen a drastic hair change involving Black hair shown in such respectful and loving detail as when Ayanna cuts off her box braids.
“I was adamant that the way that we represented that moment on-screen was true to what that moment is for Black girls and women,” Howard said. “Because I go to the films and I see things that have to do with Black women's hair, their body and I'm just like uh-uh. That's not how it is in real life. I don't believe you and then I'm out. We really did not want that to happen with Premature.”
As Ayanna, we watch Howard cut her extensions, and then unbraid them slowly and carefully. The next morning, she wakes with piles of former braids tangled in her sheets, indicating just how long it took.
“[A haircut] is something that we see often in film as some kind of new beginning because women carry so much in our hair. But for Black women it's not quite the same. If you saw Ayanna just straight cut off all that I'd be like, Bullshit. No, she didn't. Not about to go to college, she didn't. Not 17-years-old in the summertime she didn't. No, no, no. What would her mama say?’
Ultimately, Howard hopes the movie will help young Black women feel respected and acknowledged in a world that so often overlooks them. “They're in everything that I write and create and I'm committed to lifting them up in everything that I do,” she said. “I know that a lot of media doesn't reflect that.”