Lena Waithe's The Chi Brings Out Chicago's Cold and Warm Sides


A fatal, frustrating scene serves as the turning point in the pilot episode of Showtime’s The Chi, setting up a domino of bad choices for its primary characters. A 16-year-old is shot and killed and, by that point in the story, we’ve come to know him, or at least we feel like we do. We know who killed him and who witnessed it, too, which makes us solemn, confused and wishful witnesses ourselves. The boy is gone, he was someone’s brother, and in his absence, there’s a pursuit of justice through vengeance in the name of the dead. It’s in that pursuit that stupid decisions beget stupider ones, in what turns out to be a story driven by a ghost.

For all the coverage of what’s been happening in Chicago, there hasn’t been a series that’s distilled talking points about murder and poverty in the city into storytelling focused around black people being (sometimes screwed up) people. With The Chi, creator and writer Lena Waithe ably dramatizes black family values under the premise that violence has the power to destruct and divert, in part through poor decision-making. The pilot establishes a colorful, cruel world that exists in real space, with a stable of familiar types—young, impressionable troublemakers, elder drug dealers with amoral compasses, and surrogate adults making up for broken structures. Some of them want to do good but encounter poisonous seeds; 0thers are concrete in their ways.

(Major first-episode spoilers below.)

The most interesting of these characters are the ones who deal with loss or misfortune by filling the void with destruction. Jason Mitchell, best known for Straight Outta Compton and Mudbound, stars as Brandon, a chef who volleys between a professional come-up and precariously navigating the tragedy of his brother Coogie getting murdered. A standout performer, Mitchell is a definite force here, as in all his films, bringing subtle heft to lines that would otherwise read cliché. His profound eulogy in the pilot alone makes the show worth watching. Coogie is the above-mentioned 16-year-old who dominates Episode 1, so much so that you think it’ll be his story, and then haunts other’s actions after he’s gone—a viscerally absent main character. Another standout and the most likable is Moonlight’s Alex Hibbert as Kevin, a school kid turned bystander caught up in shit he can’t understand who burrows deep into trouble anyway.

That the simple presence of humanity is a point of interest about the show says plenty about television’s expectations of black stories and of the city of Chicago.

A series that could lean intensely on caricature focuses more on building its world around the worth of people and their cyclical mistakes. (The most stereotypical person is the young kid Jake’s drug dealer brother, who plays to type). That the simple presence of humanity is a point of interest about the show says plenty about television’s expectations of black stories and of the city of Chicago.

Execution isn’t spotless—this isn’t The Wire-level genius. Though The Chi does openly use that series as a template, comparisons are futile. The exceptional pilot (directed by Rick Famuyima) gives way to latter episodes that aren’t as visually arresting or narratively seamless, and the episodes have a tendency to let melodrama curtail good story development, but not so much that it threatens your attachment to the people. There’s charm in the way Kevin lumbers his way through courting his school crush; in Brandon’s sense of accomplishment at work and the intimacy between him and his levelheaded girlfriend Jerrika; and in the minor interactions, like those between the young people and the neighborhood bodega store owner. There are enough reasons to invest time in the series, to see young faces you want to succeed instead be destructively sloppy. Even through structural holes (the two cop characters are largely tangential, and Jacob Latimore, as Emmett, floats aimlessly around in the narrative as a sudden single dad), The Chi wants you to wonder who, if anyone, will make the right decision.

As recent as December, in a speech at the FBI’s Quantico academy in Virginia, President Donald Trump once again touched on the state of Chicago without meaningful specifics. “You look at what’s going on in Chicago. What the hell is going on in Chicago? What the hell is happening there?” he said. “For the second year in a row, a person was shot in Chicago every three hours. You don’t think these people in this room can stop that? They’d stop that.”

Stories told about Chicago tend to revolve around dreadful statistics about its murder rate that reduce the city to a convenient surrogate for discussions about black violence and turbulent systems. Spike Lee tried to parse the labyrinthine “Chicago problem” three years ago with Chiraq, a satirical piece that centered around black women in the city withholding sex in protest of violence, but that film gave us much less nuance than The Chi. I’m not sure if, in building a meaningful, clunky world, the show has some grand, powerful statement about Chicago at the end—or if that statement is simply that people live there, and we should see them.

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