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‘The Chi’ premieres and Lena Waithe talks about what makes it different from every other show set in Chicago

Television Critics Diary: An early victory lap for the Showtime drama set on the South Side

PASADENA, California — The Chi, the new Showtime drama set on the South Side of Chicago, finally makes its television debut tonight at 10.

It doesn’t really do it justice to call The Chi a crime drama, although that’s what it is. It’s a thoughtful story of interlocking family traumas that begins with the murder of one Chicago boy and quickly leads to another.

The pilot, which was shot by Dope director Rick Famuyiwa, has been available to stream for a couple of weeks now. On Saturday, executive producer Lena Waithe joined the cast and co-executive producer Common for a triumphant panel at the Television Critics Association press tour.

Waithe made history a few months ago when she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing for a deeply personal coming-out story she penned as an episode of Master of None. Showtime president David Nevins, who spoke Saturday on a separate panel, made sure to mention that the network had seen promise in Waithe long before then. Showtime purchased Waithe’s script for The Chi in June 2015.

“She brought in a script that felt like a really interesting inverse to the crime shows that are set in Chicago where the characters that are generally the guest stars, the sort of objects of the investigation, were the subjects of this show,” Nevins said. “And she had really interesting things to say about them. And there were a lot of them, but they had distinctiveness. Each character, sort of, had their own moment.”

This was intentional on Waithe’s part, and she confirmed during the Chi panel that she starts by writing characters first because she wants to craft multifaceted human beings who inspire compassion and curiosity. And she’s especially interested in providing that sort of consideration for characters who are black.

“My whole house looked like True Detective when I was figuring out the pilot because I was like trying to figure out when this person would meet this person, when this person comes to this and all these things would happen,” Waithe said. “And then I began writing. So that way I had a road map of how to get to where I needed to go, and I think just based on the reactions I’ve gotten from the pilot, I’m really grateful because it means all the work was not in vain.”

The story of The Chi is set off by a magnetic cast, from The Wire’s Sonja Sohn to Mudbound star Jason Mitchell, to Sleight leading man Jacob Latimore, who’s finally in a role that takes full advantage of the playful, youthful moxie he brings to the screen. But I was most impressed by The Chi’s corps of child actors, led by Alex Hibbert, who played Little in Moonlight.

The Chi asks a lot of the children in it. These characters bear witness to horrific tragedies that they barely have the skills to process. Of course, it’s not just the child actors of The Chi who have taken on this task. I found myself astonished at the depth of what’s been asked of the cast of Stranger Things, another show that features kids giving complex emotional performances in service to stories that are really for adults.

“My whole house looked like True Detective when I was figuring out the pilot.”

But The Chi provides something special in its reflection of black childhood, i.e., how often it’s cut short and how children are expected to mature quickly for the sake of their own safety. When black children are allowed to be too innocent or naive about the realities of the world, it can cost them their lives, be it Tamir Rice or Emmett Till, the son of Chicago whose casket is on display in the Blacksonian.

Waithe manages to expertly balance the teeter-totter of black youth. She incorporates the horrors that children witness and also the wonderful ordinariness of age-appropriate problems, like deciding to try out for the school musical because a girl you like is doing it. She lets us see the innocence that’s only a part-time reality for the kids of The Chi, which makes the harsher realities of their lives that much more devastating.

“For me, growing up in Chicago, I talked a lot like these kids talk on the show. I was cursing like a sailor at 8 and 9, but it’s because I was ear hustling my family,” Waithe said. “I grew up in a house with a lot of women in the house who cursed like sailors, and I was trying to be like them. … You hear about things you shouldn’t hear about. My father, who is deceased now, he suffered from a lot of substance abuse and things like that that my family couldn’t necessarily keep me away from as much. So there were things that I knew about, that I heard, and I saw probably a little bit too young.

“­­But what it did was, it did grow me up a little bit. And I think what it does is it definitely impacts the way I write children, particularly black children, particularly children who are on the South Side of Chicago, because I just know that they’re these little adults. … That, to me, was really interesting to show, is that gut innocence, but also the maturity that kids have in inner cities that they sort of are forced to have.”

I asked if it was possible to protect young actors like Hibbert, who is 12, so as to maintain some level of innocence in real life separate from what they’re asked to recreate on screen. The answer was complicated.

“It’s not far from what I’ve seen,” Hibbert said. “To piggyback off what [Waithe] says, we hear from our family, and they curse. And a lot of the kids that we hear from, not just in our grade level but in higher grade levels, we hear off of them.”

There just wasn’t that much space between the screen and real life, not just for Hibbert but also for Mitchell, 31. It’s easy to think of actors as enjoying privileged lives. The cast of The Chi reminds us that’s not always the case, that there’s real pain that informs a show like The Chi, and that provides the essence of what makes it so compelling.

It’s also what makes it stand out from a sea of copy-and-paste broadcast dramas about Chicago.

“I grew up in a fairly violent environment,” Mitchell said. “I’m from New Orleans, Louisiana, and I went to the top four worst schools in the nation. … It was imperative to be able to be tough and still have to be happy. It’s hard to be a kid when you’re in this really grown-up environment, you know, when you are pressed to bring some sort of money home or, you know, you never really know these people’s story.

“So it’s good to see this TV show. It’s good to soak this in and see, you know, this sort of ecosystem and this domino effect that it has to open up a child’s eyes so early because, I mean, in Chicago if you make it to 21, they’re considered an OG, which is, like, an original gangster. And to think that you’re an original at 21? Like, you can’t even rent a car yet.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.