With The Chi, Lena Waithe Pays Brilliant Tribute to a City’s Complex VitalityPhoto: Matt Dinerstein/SHOWTIME TV Reviews The Chi
Art has always reflected the world that we live in. And the Trump presidency has given the entertainment industry plenty of fodder. From skewering Saturday Night Live impersonations, to the Will & Grace revival to poignant episodes of black-ish, television is enthusiastically and creatively addressing the current state of affairs.
The Chi functions as a resounding response to President Trump’s continual attacks on Chicago. It serves as eloquent proof that the people who inhabit the city are much more than statistics. That there is a complex vitality to the city and the people who live there.
The president seems to delight in demonizing Chicago, particularly by focusing on the city’s crime rate. But The Chi pulls back the layers to reveal the causes of the strife and the real people behind the headlines. Like the neighborhoods you live in, there are people who care about their community, parents who love their children, adults who work hard.
The opening shot of The Chi follows Coogie (Jahking Guillory), a 16-year-old with great hair and a unique sense of style, as he bikes through the streets of Chicago’s south side. It’s a cliché to say this, but remember Guillory’s name. His performance is so nuanced, so charming, so utterly delightful that you’re bound to be in love with Coogie by the end of the first episode. He’s the type of kid who advises the cop interrogating him on what kind of shoes to buy, negotiates with the owner of the corner store to get a good deal on soda and buys beef jerky to feed a neglected dog.
The Chi is full of rich, vibrant characters like Coogie as it explores how the death of a high school basketball star has ripples throughout the community. At first, it seems like the stories of Brandon (Jason Mitchell), a prep cook working his way up the restaurant hierarchy, Kevin (Alex Hibbert), a middle schooler so smitten with a classmate that he reluctantly auditions for the school play, Emmett (Jacob Lattimore), a young adult with a shoe addiction and children he’s not equipped to take responsibility for, and Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) a man whose addictions have thwarted his success, are not related. But, of course, they are. Reminiscent of The Wire, The Chi, which was shot entirely on location in Chicago, weaves in and out of these characters’ stories.
The series is created, executive produced and written by Lena Waithe. Waithe, who plays Denise on Netflix’s Master of None, won an Emmy for co-writing the second season’s best episode, “Thanksgiving,” which followed Denise’s coming out to her family over a series of Thanksgivings. Much as Denise, an African American lesbian, defies the stereotypes television is so quick to assign to people, The Chi goes beyond the clichés to give viewers fully realized and multifaceted characters. Emmett is a verifiable ladies man, looking at texts from one girl while he’s sleeping with another, but he’s also smitten with his son and wants desperately to care for him even if he doesn’t know how. Ronnie is chronically unemployed, but he’s also devoted to his grandmother and his ex-girlfriend, Tracy (Tai Davis). Brandon’s mother, Laverne (Sonja Sohn), is a neglectful alcoholic, but she also loves her sons. Like real people, no character can be summed up easily with a convenient soundbite.
Also defying convention is Detective Rick Cruz (Armando Riesco), who knows the community well and seeks to help the citizens. Cruz’s compassionate act towards Jason’s parents sets off a sequence of events he did not foresee. Cruz’s colleague, Detective Wallace (Brian King), is the jerky co-worker we’ve all had to deal with. He’s on an undercover operation that he won’t share intel on and loves putting down Cruz any chance he gets. “You’ve been working out,” he asks him. “No,” Cruz replies. “I didn’t think so,” Wallace says with a snicker. Is Wallace just an ass, or is something more sinister going on?
As the story goes in and out of the characters’ arcs, how everyone is connected is revealed. Emmett’s mom, Jada (Yolonda Ross), is the nurse for Ronnie’s grandmother. Kevin’s older sister is sleeping with Emmett. Ronnie is a criminal informant for Detective Cruz. Kevin, his wide-eyed innocence slowly eroding, witnesses something that will connect him to nearly all the characters.
The cast is stellar. Particularly impressive are the terrific performances from the young cast. As already mentioned, Guillory is fantastic, but so is Hibbert, who you may remember from Moonlight. Mwine brings a quiet optimism amidst sadness to Ronnie. And Mitchell will break your heart as man who is at the precipice of a great career but could see it all squandered.
Woven through all of this is a murder mystery that is almost secondary to the great character stories being told. The Chi is about the choices we make every day. But it’s also about life—the crushes, the friendships, the families that are the very fabric of our existence, on the south side of Chicago and everywhere.
The Chi premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .