Lena Waithe’s ‘The Chi’ Is a Sublime Portrait of Black Life in Chicago
Emmy winner Lena Waithe’s vibrant new Showtime series reworks Chicago mythology from the tall tales spun about it by the man currently sitting in the White House.
American mythology is one helluva drug.
There are things that we allow ourselves to believe in order for the Great American Myth Book to rest on the mantle. One of them is the myth of Chicago. Always a crime-ridden city, whether it's mobbed up, plagued by devils in the white city, or a bacchanal of gun violence and black-on-black crime, these are the stories Americans put themselves to bed with at night so that the status quo remains. Never mind the communities whose hearts beat to the hope of a positive future as strongly, if not more, than any other American city. Never mind the cool breeze that rolls off the lake on a sweltering summer day. Never mind the wealth of artists borne from the city's pavement. Never mind the delectable food that the city produces. Never mind that Barack Obama, one of America's greatest leaders, spoke in Chicago's Grant Park on the night of his historic election and I felt chills run through my body as every diverse body in the vicinity grasped one another in kinship.
Those are the stories that creator Lena Waithe seeks to tell with her new Showtime drama The Chi. Operating like a Robert Altman-esque meditation on the minutiae of daily life in Chicago, the series is a sprawling drama that introduces you to several characters whose lives will ultimately intersect. At no point, however, does it seem overwhelming. The characters are introduced vibrantly and with full lives. You believe at once that these characters existed before we dipped into their world and that even if we never saw another hour of The Chi, they would continue to march on with their lives.
It brings to mind the meditative stories of early daytime dramas, before the soapiness of evil twins or babies switched at birth, stories about intertwined communities that made a city feel vibrant. I don't know how much Waithe is familiar with daytime soaps, but the large canvass and the romances and business owners and teachers and chefs with dreams call to mind the kind of stories America was raised on in the '50s and '60s, except those stories were devoid of non-white people. Perhaps as people of color we know so much about the white American experience and feel so much nostalgia for their pop culture because we've had the humanity of white people driven into us since we could turn on a television.
By contrast, there are rarely enough black characters on a drama to craft more than one idea of what it is to be a black man or a black woman. When there are, the genre tends to sway things in a particular direction — comedies like Black-ish and soaps like Empire lean toward a specific world view. The Chi attempts a "golden age of TV" representation of black life that is at most times a character study, a deliberate attempt to portray black lives as myriad and conflicting as they are in real life. It's an attempt to rework a city's mythology from the tall tales spun about it on the news by the man currently sitting in the White House.
America's perception of Chicago means that there will always be the specter of violence and bloodshed hanging above the city. The Chi knows this and leans into it. Death occurs in the series not to drive up ratings for pulp-obsessed conservative news anchors, parceling out black pain for personal gain. It was a news report like this which spurred Waithe to create The Chi in the first place. Speaking to the New York Daily News she said, "They were walking through the neighborhoods that I lived in, been around. I didn’t know the people the guy was interviewing but I felt like I knew them and I felt like I wanted to tell their story. That’s where I’m from, and I want to tell our story in a really good way and show the humanity." And that humanity is a neighborhood that knows the realities of their circumstances and still feels hopeful. You might expect gun violence to make The Chi a tragedy, but instead it enlivens it and bursts it with human emotion. Heartbreak, fear, lust for revenge, and empathy. To hear Waithe describe Chicago, “It was a great way to grow up. I was definitely raised by a village. I cherish those people who raised me," she told The Daily Beast.
At the center of The Chi are beautiful, nuanced performances that seek to be that village for television viewers. None are more powerful than Jason Mitchell, who recently starred in Dee Rees' mesmerizing film Mudbound and expands upon his skills as an actor. He radiates in the series as if he were the iconic American and British stage actor Ira Aldridge stepping into the body of Othello. It's on Mitchell's shoulders that much of the Shakespearean-like tragedy weighs and it's his struggle whether or not to seek revenge in the wake of a devastating tragedy that propulses the show from its milieu into sublime television. If The Chi manages to change how at least one person has grown up with a misconception of Chicago, if it gifts them with its humanity, it will have done its job.