The very first time I heard of The Chi, I really didn’t think it was going to be exceptional. Not from an artistic standpoint but from an originality standpoint.
I thought that Showtime would not be doing anything groundbreaking or cutting edge with this project. I was very much aware of who Lena Waithe was from her work as a co-writer on Master of None, but couldn’t fathom the level to which she had mastered her craft.
A friend of mine at another publication received a screener link of the first three episodes, and I was immediately drawn in by the steps that were taken to humanize every character. Though the outside world often muses about the idea of good guys versus bad guys as far as the hood goes, the bad guys mostly are portrayed as black while the good guys are white and often wearing blue.
This narrative has been pushed in timesboth both contemporary and historic.
However, the reality is far more complex than that, and most writers are too lazy to create complex black characters, especially not black males.
There are places in time and space through which our very existence seems to be quantified. As the stars, planets, and hemispheres align in just the right way they bring sites into view, illuminating what was once obscure.
But by the end of the second episode, I couldn’t hold back the tears as Brandon, played by Jason Mitchell, cries inconsolably at the loss of his brother and seeks revenge knowing that justice is something that is rarely afforded to black bodies, living or dead.
After the deluge, I didn’t think much about it. However, weeks later I sat in attendance at a screening and Q&A session for The Chi at SXSW with Waithe, Mitchell, Jacob Latimore, and other cast members.
The clip they showed featured Emmett, played by Lattimore, sitting in the park with his infant child. He’s overwhelmed by the thought of being a single dad with no help.
Feeling smothered by his decisions, he leaves the park, but his son’s pleading cries make him return. I cried uncontrollably in front of strangers at that scene. Like, snot, spit, slobber-type crying. That ugly-ass crying.
Another very emotional exchange for me was the dialogue between Ronnie, played by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, and Rafiq, played by Common.
TheChi creator @LenaWaithe has signed a first-look deal with #Showtime and will develop comedy and drama projects for the network.
It was an intimate, honest portrayal of a man who made a terrible mistake and is looking to alleviate that burden, and another who had already traveled that road and offers a level of understanding that no one else could.
I was floored when I realized the entire season was written by Waithe.
As a black man, watching The Chi had me all in my emotions from the very beginning. I laughed raucously at times, and squirmed uncomfortably at others behind the decisions made by impassioned and saddened individuals. Created by Lena Waithe, the first African American woman to win an Emmy for a comedy series, The Chi takes place on the South Side of Chicago.
I suspect that, in the hands of anyone else, The Chi would have been heavy on sound and fury signifying nothing. Lots of jive talk, gun-play, hip-hop and violence.
I was trying to figure out these characters, Waithe told attendees at SXSW. We did a first draft which we thought was okay but could have been stronger. Showtime stayed with me and we got Rick Famuyiwa to come in. Then, they gave us another strike at it, which very rare in television. But we just hit it out of the park and Im really grateful for the people that kept rocking with us and watching the show.
It is very unique. Its a unique way to look at black people, it is a unique way to see us because were really just being. Were not tap dancing, were not trying to get out of the hood, were not rapping, we’re just being.”
Waithe also appeared in the Stephen Spielberg instant classic “Ready Player One” in a pivotal supporting role as “H”. She wasn’t needing to be saved, she was doing the saving. She wasn’t in need of strength, she was the strongest. She wasn’t in need of friendship but gave it anyway.
She wasn’t anyone’s token, but a deserving actress contributing to a great work. The recent news celebrating Lena’s first look deal with Showtime is apropos for several reasons, and her growing list of accomplishments should continue to amaze.