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.
The story centers around the murders of two young men of African descent, and progresses through viewpoint of four main characters. Jason Mitchell plays Brandon, the older brother of one the murder victims, Jacob Latimore is Emmett, an irresponsible young father whose life is turned on its ear when his third baby mother insists upon his compliance with co-parenting in classic black woman fashion. Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine is Ronnie, the stepfather of a slain high school basketball star. His obsession with finding out who killed his stepson leads to unintended but equally heartbreaking consequences. My favorite of the four main characters, is Kevinplayed by young Alex Hibbert.
Jahking Guillory plays Coogle. We ALL know Coogle. He is loved by many, he is intelligent, he is confident, he is handsome, and he is also poor. Panged by poverty and want, Coogle does something desperate and stupid to the point of being revolting. I watched him continue perpetrating that mistake throughout the first episode, and I saw him pay the price I knew he ultimately had to pay within the context of the story.
An explosion of feelings ripped through me with each familiar scene gleaned from daily life in the American ghetto, and there were a ton. Though it is set on the South Side, it could take place in any American inner city. It feels like a something of a misnomer to call a story situated around dead black bodies due to black-on-black crime a coming of age story, but that is exactly what it is. Stripped of its trappings, The Chi is about life, survival, and trying to do whats right for themselves, as well as the ones they love.
A fateful event sends shockwaves through a community on the South Side of Chicago and connects the lives of Brandon, Ronnie, Emmett and Kevin in wholly unexpected ways. The ensemble cast includes Jason Mitchell, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Jacob Latimore, Alex Hibbert, Yolonda Ross, Tiffany Boone and Armando Riesco.
The first episode, currently available for free on Youtube and Facebook, sets up the various character arcs of the main players, as well as supporting actors that are essential to telling the story. Each of the primary characters is orbited by a cast of very capable actors portraying full-fleshed supporting roles. They were not two-dimensional facsimiles of TV black folk, but three dimensional with intentions and beliefs all their own.
Actress Tiffany Boone plays Jerrika, the girlfriend of Brandon. She is not only representing his common sense, his future and sense of growth. She and Brandon have plans on opening a restaurant together, but he needs experience as a line chef to realize that dream. At the very moment Brandon discovers who murdered his younger brother, he receives a text from the head chef informing him of a promotion, and the first episode comes full circle as the credits role. Brandons interest in hitting the streets to find information about his brothers death does not sit well with Jerrika.
A reviewer over at Variety praised the cast while dissing the manner in which the story jumps from viewpoint to viewpoint as frequently as it does. However, I would argue that the nuances of life in any community setting are so intricate that the only way to truly paint a full picture is to show as many different perspectives as possible. And without all those perspectives being introduced, we wouldnt be able to see these great young actors do their thing.
Kevin starts off as just another kid in America. He has a crush, Andrea (Mariah Gordon), a loving big sister in Keisha (Birgundi Baker), as well as a motley duo in Popa (Shamon Brown Jr) and Jake (Michael Epps). Each of the people in his life influence the young man to varying degrees. However, when he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, hes forced to get involved in matters no child should ever have to deal with.
Veteran actress Sonja Sohn plays Laverne, the mother of Brandon and Coogle. Laverne suffers from an alcohol dependency that appears to have always plagued her family. She is impulsive, she is argumentative, she is self-destructive, and she is also one of the characters that had me in my feelings the most. Her dubious behavior is troubling, yet you cannot front on the sincerity of the portrayal turned in by Sohn.
Though a narrative from multiple viewpoints is difficult to write, the writers pull it off as well as anybody could in the first four episodes. I suspect that, as the arc moves forward, the writing is just going to get better. Of course, you cant have a film executive produced by Common have a crappy score. To that end, the selections were as appropriate as they were eclectic.
For its sincere interpretation of life, choices, struggle and redemption within the lives of African Americans living in the inner city, and for being a well-told story that humanizes the dehumanized, The Chi just might be an early front runner for my favorite series of 2018. Yes, Im aware its still the first week of January.
The Chi premieres on Sunday, January 7 on Showtime.