Warning: Spoilers ahead
Chicago is a city with a lot of soul. It works hard, stays up late, and its locals are tired. Tired of traveling and having people ask if they step over dead bodies on their way to the el. Tired of people referring to the city they love as “Chi-Raq.” Tired of media-fueled misconceptions about the neighborhoods they hold dear. Tired of gentrification. Tired of suburbanites claiming their beautiful city all day, except when it comes to actually living here. Tired of tone-deaf movies like “Chi-Raq” that paint the city in a negative light, or movies that only showcase the Loop or other areas of concentrated wealth… and then came “The Chi,” a breath of fresh air.
The significance of setting the show in Chicago is not lost on this writer, and in comparisons between this and other current popular shows set in major metropolitan areas, like “Empire” (NYC/Philly, though filmed in Chicago) and “Power” (also set in NYC), we see a much more realistic and accurate depiction of the community dynamics. That, in part at least, has a lot to do with director Lena Waithe’s team, which includes Chicago native Common as an executive producer. Having a team personally and passionately invested in the title city makes a huge difference in terms of the overall big picture message, and even smaller aspects of the show like camera angles, cityscape shots, character dialogue, stylistic components of wardrobe, hair and makeup, etc. We see a similar emotional investment behind the way the culture within the city of Atlanta is conveyed on screen through Donald Glover’s critically-acclaimed “Atlanta.” Glover is an Atlanta-area native, which definitely translates in the series. While shows like “Power” and “Empire” are inarguably good quality television, they don’t carry the same love for the cities in which they’re set, something that adds depth and substance and increases audience appeal in shows like “The Chi” and “Atlanta.”
Ms. Waithe’s “The Chi,” picked up by the Showtime network premiered on January 7. It followed several multidimensional characters as their lives intertwine after two tragic losses of young lives by way of gun violence. It is mostly set in the present day on Chicago’s South Side, by the 70s (Chicago street names on the South Side are numerical and go up to the 100s). The show opened with well-lit shots of the residential parts of the South Side, not a bunch of gimmicky skyline shots, showcasing more to the city than the downtown area the rest of the world pictures when they hear “Chicago.” A smart-talking young man we come to know as Coogie (Jahking Guillory), who later gets tangled up in a shooting on 79th, is negotiating his way to discounted pop (soda for all you non-Chicagoites) at the neighborhood corner store, 77th Mart. The opening tunes on the soundtrack feature some big Chicago names like Chance the Rapper and some up-and-comers like Noname.
Early on in the episode, we meet Keisha (Birgundi Baker) and her little brother Kevin (Alex Hibbert). We also meet Keisha’s boyfriend, Emmett (whose cocky, flippant persona is delivered flawlessly by Jacob Latimore), sneaker head and dad to (as he finds out) three kids for whom he is still learning to take responsibility. We meet Emmett’s mom, Jada, who is trying to instill in him said sense of responsibility, and serves us no-nonsense attitude for days, thanks to Yolanda Ross’ top-notch portrayal. We meet Ronnie, whose character is depicted by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, an older gentleman who gives us the sense that he’s done and seen a lot in his years, and the pack of unemployed men who hang out on the corner with him. We’re not told who runs the corner where these folks hang out, but we know it’s not a desirable group of people with whom to associate and that dangerous activity takes place in the area. We learn that the shooting victim Coogie found on 79th is Jason, Ronnie’s stepson. Ronnie makes it his mission, on behalf of Jason’s mother and his ex, Tracy, to avenge Jason’s death. We also meet the younger set, which includes Kevin and his crew at school, Jake, Papa, and the girl he is crushing on, Andrea. Kevin shows us the importance of image, even at such a young age. He’s gotta have the freshest shoes, and doesn’t want to get involved with extracurriculars because his friends give him a hard time for it. However, he tries out for the school play in an attempt to get Andrea’s attention and discovers a talent for music.
We also meet Brandon, Coogie’s older brother, played by Jason Mitchell (“Straight Outta Compton” “Mudbound”), who has moved out of the ‘hood up to (presumably) the North Side, with his girlfriend, Jerrika, who his mom refers to as “bougie,” likely because she’s not from the South Side. He is an aspiring chef and restaurateur with everything going for him. But when tragedy strikes the family, we see Brandon break down. Between the blame his alcoholic mother places on him and the pressure on him to excel “on the line” at the restaurant where he works to acquire a coveted promotion, the audience gets a sense that he might snap if he keeps his emotions under wraps for too long.
The character development in the pilot was already very multidimensional, leaving quite a bit of room for further development and discovery, but also presented a hearty enough storyline to keep the audience invested in the cliffhangers. As an audience, we are left with uncertainties with regard to how the lives of these complex characters will further intertwine, what traits or past wounds will surface or resurface, allowing us to delve deeper into some of the underlying issues faced by the characters. In so doing, Waithe and her team of executive producers have the potential to bring attention to similar struggles for real-life Chicagoans. There is definitely lots of room for this series to play a major role in unearthing some of the causes behind these struggles and use its platform to issue real-life calls to action in future episodes..
In sum, “The Chi” definitely shed a much more flattering and accurate light on life in Chicago, unparalleled by anything fictional set here before now. The audience is shown that yes, there is gun violence in Chicago, and yes, it is a problem. Revenge killings, drug abuse and alcoholism, teen pregnancy and premature sexual activity (“It’s sad we live in a world where being a 16-year-old virgin is funny”), and gang violence do happen on the streets of Chicago. But there are also young people keeping their heads above it and working to break the cycle, kids like Coogie and Kevin, young adults like Brandon actively creating a better life for themselves by learning a craft or an art form that can bring them out of destructive environments and potentially damning situations. The pilot alone painted a vibrant, diverse idea of the American Dream via Chicago and a refreshing take on what’s to come for this world-class city and its inhabitants. Chicago can’t wait to keep watching!
– Courtney Quigley