Chicagoans are protective of their city, and for good reason. Over the past few years, the City of the Big Shoulders has been the go-to dog whistle for Republicans and what-about-black-on-black-crime enthusiasts alike. The city’s spot on America’s Wheel of Sensationalism has dominated the larger national media gaze as the premier symbol of the black community’s perceived moral decay, with no sign of letting up.
Consequently, Hollywood depictions of the city, looking to cash in on its problematic visibility, have run the gamut from cringeworthy to insulting. Few examples are more emblematic of this shameless leeching than Spike Lee’s Chi-raq, in which Chicago is used as a mere prop and vehicle for Lee to display his increasingly conservative and uninspiring politics while revealing a gaping disconnect with the city’s culture and citizens.
So obviously, upon hearing that Chicago native, actress and screenwriter Lena Waithe would be handling new Showtime series The Chi—which premiered Sunday—I sighed with a bit of relief. Waithe, who grew up on 79th Street before moving to Evanston, Ill., as a preteen, expressed in several interviews that she wants to show a more “humanized” view of the people who inhabit the neighborhoods of her childhood with less focus on the “senseless violence” and more centering of the everyday people who are trying to survive.
“It’s not, ‘Let’s show black people in Chicago in a positive light,’” Lena Waithe told Entertainment Weekly. “I want to show people in a human light.” She’s joined by another Chicago native, rapper and actor Common, who is executive producer. The cast consists of an impressive roster that includes Jason Mitchell (Mudbound, Straight Outta Compton) Alex R. Hibbert (Moonlight) and Sonja Sohn (The Wire), and the show boasts an all-black writers’ room, which Waithe calls “unheard of.”
With all of these promising aspects in mind, I was still admittedly a bit apprehensive about the series, afraid I’d be hypercritical about inaccurate and inauthentic details and trauma-porn-like violence to give it a fair shake. Having moved to Chicago’s South Side on 83rd and Seeley with my family at 8 years old after fleeing Los Angeles shortly after the riots, I spent most of my childhood, adolescence and adult life toggling between Los Angeles and Cook County, Ill., living everywhere from up north’s Edgewater to out south’s 64th and Drexel, so I was curious to see if I’d recognize the city that I hold dear being reflected on the screen.
The pilot episode, which is available on YouTube, both confirmed and quelled some of my reservations. The opening scene follows a character named Coogie—a teenage boy with a head full of billowing curly 3c hair—as he rides his bike past murals and vacant housing along a sparsely populated 79th Street while music from Chance the Rapper serves as the score.
Even with all the South Side landmarks (and after guffawing at a scene where you can see Sears Tower on 79th), Coogie’s appearance is glaringly unfamiliar. Dressed in yellow Vans, pink socks and shin-hugging athletic joggers with a floral backpack, Coogie does not look like a boy from 79th.
As he haggles with Habib the corner-store owner for a discount on some grape pop and jerky, he doesn’t talk like a boy from 79th, and wearing noise-canceling headphones while out in the streets, where awareness and survival are inextricably linked, he does not act like a boy from 79th, either.
These may seem like minute, insignificant details for people unfamiliar with the city; however, this is the first indication of what appears to be a recurring theme with The Chi: It’s a show that ultimately seeks to explain the black people of Chicago to non-Chicagoans, and these details are treated as inconsequential to that objective.
The Chi is packaged as a coming-of-age drama (the young character Kevin, portrayed by Moonlight’s Alex Hibbert, is who you see on the promotional poster). However, there is no singular protagonist. There are other characters central to the story—Brandon (Jason Mitchell), Emmett (Jacob Latimore) and Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine)—whose lives begin to intersect because of a graphic shooting that claims the life of a teenage boy.
The show skillfully displays the ripple effects of gun violence in Chicago and the choices it presents to those who are connected to both perpetrators and victims living in a city with a notorious and well-earned distrust of law enforcement—although it is a bit jarring that gun violence is ultimately the catalyst that propels the plot.
It’s more of an ensemble story (similar to that of The Wire) that grabs from the lives of various characters found in Chicago’s poor and working-class communities. The web the show weaves to connect these characters does at times seem a bit unlikely; however, it’s never completely unbelievable or melodramatic.
There are more fumbles in the details. The South Side middle school students and characters look more like extras from Dope than people actually from “the crib.” The navy-and-white school uniforms, skinny jeans, painstakingly exposed designer belts, flashy shoes, Louis Speedy bags, sew-ins, false lashes and coveted designer outerwear that you’d more commonly see in real life are replaced by colorful and eclectic styling and natural dos that would be more at home on Grown-ish. The Kedzie Pink Line train pulling into the Garfield Green Line station during a scene with Coogie and Brandon is bound to make a local scratch their head in confusion.
The slang is outdated—there’s one scene where Kevin literally says, “Get to steppin’,” and to be honest, I don’t even know anyone under 60 who calls Chicago “the Chi.” Emmett is a slacker and a sneakerhead who makes money from shoe resales, as opposed to something more common to a Chicago hustle, like a card cracker or the more legal option of cutting hair. And quite frankly, the score could use a bit more local flavor beyond that of Chance (King Louie, Valee, Dreezy, Noname, Lil Durk, maybe some BJ the Chicago Kid).
The show partially compensates for these oversights with some commanding performances, like Jason Mitchell’s Brandon—a young cook trying to climb the ladder in Chicago’s thriving restaurant scene that you can’t help wanting to see win. Scenes with Kevin and his friends are particularly fun and charming to watch, and the moments that do feature speaking parts from locals are refreshing and hopefully will become more frequent.
Unfortunately, the female characters are so staunchly confined to narrow tropes (the angry baby mama, the grieving black mother, the angry black mother, the doting girlfriend) that they didn’t have a chance to make an impression. Hopefully they’ll be afforded the complexities of their male counterparts in later episodes.
Waithe says that she wants to hear critique and feedback from Chicagoans the most, and that is encouraging. Ultimately the cast, crew and creators of The Chi seem genuinely interested in establishing a connection with the local culture (the bad blood established with the West Side’s North Lawndale community during filming notwithstanding) and doing the city of Chicago and its people justice.
However, like most shows and films that center the city, it presents the South Side (which is expansive and a lot more economically diverse than the West Side) as both the sum total of Chicago’s black communities and a monolithic blob of poverty and violence. The West, East and North Side communities just do not exist in Waithe’s Chicago.
It may not be realistic to expect The Chi to tackle all the nuances the city has to offer, but as a show that touts wanting to comprehensively represent the city, it would be nice to see the several little worlds that make up Chicago and their differences occasionally acknowledged as the series moves forward.
Essentially, I think The Chi has a lot of promising factors. These tweaks are possible, and I do look forward to keeping up with the show. Again, Waithe emphasizes wanting to “humanize” the people of Chicago to the world, and while that’s an admirable objective, one hopes the show’s direction focuses less on convincing the world that the black communities of Chicago are, in fact, filled with humans and a bit more on showing a Chicago that the people of the city itself can see themselves in.