Waithe positions South Side life front and center like we’ve never seen before.
The first image of South Side Chicago in Emmy winner Lena Waithe’s The Chi is a joyful one. In the opening scene of the new Showtime drama, a boy with a flowing afro and lemon-yellow shoes rides his bicycle through the city. His name is Coogie (Jahking Guillory), and he play-races against a man on a motorcycle, barters with a convenience store owner, and feeds a neglected pit bull beef jerky. This last bit would be too on the nose if it weren’t so important. Chicago has long been a pit bull within the American landscape: incredibly dangerous according to the news, deeply misunderstood according to those who know and love it. Judging by the first two episodes, Waithe doesn’t want to tame her hometown, but rather portray it–specifically the lives of Black men and women living in South Side–with an authenticity that few filmmakers have attempted to capture. Like Coogie, she wants us to get close enough to look beyond the teeth.
By the end of the first episode, two bodies have dropped. A man hoping to get healthy and re-enter the workforce drinks out of a bottle that’s only 12% juice (“gotta start somewhere”), but by week’s end has become embroiled in a series of violent tragedies. A new teen dad, clueless about parenting, calls his favorite shoes his babies in front of his actual baby. For these residents of Chi-town, the joy of Coogie’s bike ride seems a long way off. But despite the early introduction of street violence and other bleak realities of Chicago life, the series doesn’t seem poised to be all doom and gloom. The ad campaign features a young Black boy (Alex Hibbert, child Chiron in Moonlight) in front of a colorful wall of street art, and that sense of vibrancy is visible in the show’s lighter moments, energetic direction by Rick Famuyiwa and David Rodriguez, and throughout the upbeat soundtrack.
The Chi’s spiderweb of intersecting storylines–almost all of these people, it’s revealed, already know one another on some level–is both a strength and a weakness, oscillating in its level of artistry between Shakespearean and, well, a Crash knockoff in Chicago. The best storyline so far follows Kevin (Hibbert), a kid with a group of scrappy friends, an intense crush, and–after the events of the pilot–some adult worries. These kids are foulmouthed and funny (“I don’t f— with plays,” one says after Kevin mentions the idea of auditioning to get a girl’s attention), and their plot, mostly unhindered by the heavy emotions other characters are already caught up in, has plenty of room to grow. The same can’t be said for everyone. As aspiring chef Brandon, Mudbound’s Jason Mitchell is saddled with clunky exposition and foreshadowing of a predictable and exhausting season arc. Still, I hesitate to condemn his plot: Mitchell is a powerhouse actor, and if there’s one thing The Chi has proven already, it’s Waithe and showrunner Elwood Reid’s ability to surprise.
Comparisons to another sprawling, ambitious vision of tragedy and triumph in urban America are inevitable and warranted. Like The Wire, The Chi has an ensemble cast of diverse Black actors, a deliberate, propulsive pace, and cinematography that feels both cozily lo-fi and beautifully empathetic. Though thematically and stylistically comparable, the two are clearly not the same–something The Chi would do well to remember. While Detective McNulty and his fellow police officers were the fabric that held disparate plots together through The Wire’s five seasons, equally as real and vital as the criminals and kids on the street, The Chi has no need for a middleman in the form of a white authority figure. We see these Chicagoans clearly enough without the police perspective–yet unfortunately, we still get one. Shoehorned in among other, more meaningful dramas is a (to this point) inconsequential storyline involving two white cops, one of whom cares about the people he’s supposed to protect, and the other who says things like, “It don’t matter. They’ll eventually kill who needs to be killed and then we’ll file the paperwork.” These characters feel extraneous, held over from an era when network execs thought street life was only palatable through the distance of police procedural. The sooner The Chi loses these two, the better.
The throwback vibe that permeates The Chi’s filmic language expands beneath the surface as well. The subtle moral shading of Wraith’s characters demands a type of viewing that we as a commentary-obsessed culture haven’t practiced in awhile. These characters may be modern, but their motivations are wholly pre-internet discourse, seeming to exist before and beyond the modern preoccupation with creating some uniform morality, a collective but ever-shifting “right” and “wrong” tallied up daily in Twitter threads and public callouts. Again and again through the first two episodes, each person on screen evades easy categorization or dispassionate interpretation, instead pleading–through humane writing by Waithe and Reid–to be seen as fully human.
This ensemble will inevitably inspire cultural conversations but it’s clear that, like characters on The Wire, The Sopranos, and other series that have stretched the limits of their small screen format, these citizens of Chicago will refuse to be pinned down by labels as small as “hero” or “villain.” In Wraith’s vision of Chicago, where good kids steal shoes off of dead bodies to make a quick buck, there is no right or wrong. There’s only real.