The Chi is the type of TV show Chicago deserves. If you leave it to the media, the limited picture that’s painted of Chicago turns anyone who’s never been there away from ever coming to Chi-town because of the seemingly limitless examples of violence that plague the city.
But we can’t allow the media to paint the picture. That level of artistry requires and deserves nuanced consideration of the human beings who live there, a desire to reveal the good, the bad and the ugly as well as someone whose blood, sweat and tears are filled with the flavor of Chicago. That someone is Lena Waithe.
Coming off her history-making high of being the first black woman to take home an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for her acclaimed Thanksgiving episode of Netflix’s Master of None, Waithe—an honoree of 2017’s The Root 100—is continuing her winning streak with her new Showtime series, The Chi.
This show is one of the best and realest representations of Chicago since Chance the Rapper. And with it, Waithe’s not trying to sugarcoat or create a version of Chicago that’s a departure from what we see in the news. Instead, it’s as real as she could get about her hometown without making it a reality show.
I never thought I’d write about the city, but I just got to a place in my life where I think it was so misunderstood. It’s a different side of my voice, about being black and human and trying to survive and have a dream. It’s raw. It’s real. I’m not sugar-coating. It’s not, “Let’s show black people in Chicago in a positive light.” It’s, “I want to show people in a human light.”
And she has. It’s impossible to ignore the heinous homicide rates in Chicago. In 2017 alone, Chicago saw 664 homicides. No Chicagoan wants their city to be known for violence, and Waithe is aware of that, but she also realizes that The Chi can’t ignore it.
The show kicks off with a mysterious murder that slowly disrupts the community. Waithe takes special care in how she reveals details around the young, promising basketball player’s death (a storyline that is seen in the real world far too often). The story intricately becomes less about “whodunit” and more about how murder affects everyone, whether you had something to do with it or not.
As Chance the Rapper’s voice blasts through the speakers, we watch one of the main characters, Coogie (Jahking Guillory), negotiate prices at the corner store, ride his bike through the hood, feed and nurture a neighborhood pooch—basically, we see Coogie living his life as a young, caring black kid who is just trying to beat the odds. Spoiler alert: Young Coogie doesn’t beat the odds. I’ll let you come to your own conclusion there, but just know that his fate is one that many young black kids see, which keeps them from reaching their full potential.
Coogie’s Chicago is our first glimpse into the city, and we’re filled with the excitement of being a “free” black boy and immediately thrust into the reality of how easy it is to be another cold body on the pavement. What I love about Coogie is that he’s different. From his wild, carefree, goals-worthy tresses to his technicolor choice of clothing, he’e one of the most refreshing reflections of young black men that I’ve seen on-screen in a while.
Once we get past the limitations of seeing ourselves represented on TV, we’re faced with an endless dialogue of “Black people are not a monolith.” Despite that urging, we’re often faced with black characters who are only one thing and lack the human quality of being multifaceted. Not Waithe’s characters. Each person adds to the story, fully embodies the human spirit and automatically locks the viewer in to wait for a play-by-play of their lives.
There’s Coogie’s older half brother, Brandon (Mudbound’s Jason Mitchell), who is obviously from the same hood as Coogie but “made it out”—kinda. In the first four episodes of The Chi, we watch Brandon haphazardly navigate his life as a wannabe chef and restaurateur from his humble hood beginnings. Brandon’s balance is dizzying as he tries to pacify his volatile, alcoholic mother, Laverne (Sonja Sohn)—who seems to resent him for trying to make something better of himself and keeping his head in the culinary clouds. His life feels familiar; for all of us who left the hood in search of our own piece of the pie, Brandon’s character is for us.
If I were ranking The Chi’s characters, I’d say there’s no one more complex and well-rounded than Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine). Sidenote: I also appreciate the actor for not whitewashing his given name [black fist]. When we first meet Ronnie, we see him as just another neighborhood drunk. But there’s something different about him.
Ronnie wants to put his “hugging the block” days behind him and start living better. His first step to a new Ronnie is getting rid of his liquor so that he can juice. His ignorance around his newfound heathy lifestyle is endearing. You’re automatically rooting for Ronnie. But the first murder we see in the show changes Ronnie’s life forever. He makes deadly decisions that haunt him, and before you know it, Ronnie’s done trying to change his life for the better.
And then there’s little Kevin (Moonlight’s Alex R. Hibbert), who just wants to get the love and affection of his school crush but finds himself trying to wiggle out of the responsibility of having witnessed a murder. Even though he’s from a loving home (with his mother and his mother’s girlfriend raising him), you can see that little black Chicago Kevin is easily, and sadly, a product of his environment.
But Waithe’s expert writing makes him more than that. Kevin is a surprisingly talented young man with a big heart who just wants to be seen by the girl of his wet dreams. Kevin is also a shy guy with friends he loves no matter what they do (and one of them does something unforgivable). And honestly, Kevin’s friends, Jake and Poppa—they are the stuff TV and movie sidekicks are made of.
Usually, the friend(s) are throwaway characters, adding a little comedy and not much substance. But not these guys—especially Poppa. Waithe has created a sidekick who I want to know everything about. I want to meet Poppa’s parents, see how Poppa gets dressed for school in the morning or what he’s searching on the internet. Poppa is hilarious, scathing and one of the most lovable sidekicks I’ve ever seen. This is just another testament to Waithe’s good, home-cooked writing.
Emmett (Jacob Latimore) is a character we all know. He cares more about his appearance and sneaker collection than he does anything else. He’s got all the makings of a loser: having sex and smoking weed all up and through his mama’s house, fighting with his baby mama and attempting to run away from his responsibilities as a father. In the first four episodes of the series, you can tell that Emmett has a lot of growing up to do and will eventually come around. It’s easy to brush off a bad baby daddy, but Waithe gives Emmett more than just those qualities. She allows him to be forgiven in the learning of his lessons.
One character that rubs me the wrong way is Detective Cruz (Armando Riesco). He’s the lead detective for the first murder (of the basketball player) that we see in the series. His character has a heart of gold, but I can’t help rolling my eyes at the idea of him being a white savior. Although I am torn because Cruz is the type of officer many black people wish existed—the kind of law enforcement officer who sees young black kids as just that, not as thugs and criminals. Cruz actually believes Coogie when he says that on the night of the murder, he was in the neighborhood feeding a dog. If only more officers could give that type of care to young black men.
For those who don’t understand how poverty begets violence, The Chi is for you ... and your understanding. Lena Waithe brings humanity into these seemingly thuggish, thrown-away individuals who have lives that matter, just like any of us. She allows you to understand why retaliation murders happen, why “Fuck the police” isn’t just a rallying cry for West Coast gangbangers, why a mother would rather turn to the bottle than work through her grave circumstances.
At least, that’s my hope for this series—for folks to see beyond the statistics and regard human lives as human lives. Thank you, Lena Waithe, for providing us with a taste of the place you call home and allowing us not only to see what’s real but also to feel their pains and glories.
Watch The Chi on Showtime starting Sunday at 10 p.m. EST.