The Chi Series-Premiere Recap: South Side Story

The Chi

Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Elizabeth Sisson/SHOWTIME

The pilot episode of The Chi features a plethora of moments where the jubilance, or at least serenity, of its characters is interrupted by violence and death. A golden-colored boy with a wild mane of hair discovers a dead body while riding his bike through a neighborhood alley. Another boy, even younger, witnesses another murder, with the culprit looking into his eyes for one brief, but chilling moment as he retreats. The message is clear: The Chi aims to highlight the way that tragedy is never far away for the black and poor denizens of Chicago’s South Side, and also how a neighborhood can harbor the constant presence of both promise and loss.

The series begins with a boy named Coogie (Jahking Guillory), riding his bike through what is intended to be 79th Street, his home. Coogie witnesses a dead body being dumped, and rids the corpse of its jewelry and shoes. He’s quickly and gruffly apprehended by the police, including Armando Riesco’s squarely good cop Detective Cruz. Meanwhile, Coogie’s older brother Brandon (Jason Mitchell of Straight Outta Compton and Mudbound) has dreams of ascending the ranks of the swanky West Loop eatery where he cooks. We soon meet a raspy-voiced old-timer called Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) who was a father figure to the murdered boy, and the boy’s weeping mother demands that he seek retribution her son’s death. He murders Coogie outside of the neighborhood corner store, and the crime is witnessed by Kevin (Alex Hibbert), a younger boy who relays the information back to Brandon. The episode ends as an embattled Brandon considers whether he should avenge his own brother’s death.

That the Sears Tower makes an appearance in the opening montage is a gaffe that’s easily forgotten, but it does hint at the geographic incongruities that are peppered throughout the episode. (Imagine a show set in, say, the Bronx, which included a sun-soaked World Trade Center glistening in the background.) Episode director Rick Famuyiwa is fond of frequent shots of the city’s passing trains, and the constant presence of the Pink Line signage has the unintended effect of highlighting the fact that the show is supposedly set on the South Side but was primarily filmed on the West Side.

Thankfully, those small distractions are swept aside whenever the episode allows its characters, especially the younger ones, helmed by Moonlight’s Alex Hibbert, to just be. In those relaxed moments, series creator Lena Waithe exhibits a penchant for capturing the elliptical, alluring rhythms of black regional speech, much like her mentor Gina Prince Bythewood. This talent is most evident in Hibbert’s Kevin, the helm of a potty-mouthed troupe of roving preteens, and the unabashed star of the pilot. Hibbert retains much of the pensiveness he embodied in Moonlight, with a veneer of endearingly boyish brassiness carting him through the boilerplate happenings of school-age children. He roasts his friends in the cafeteria; he harbors a crush, then auditions for a play to impress her; he curses and bribes Brandon when the man shows up at his front door, inquiring about Coogie’s murder.

But the pilot takes an abrupt and jarring nosedive when it turns to its female characters. Brandon and Coogie’s mother, Laverne (Sonja Sohn), feels like a walking, talking embodiment of stereotypical black female pathology. Laverne berates both of her sons, belittling Brandon’s dreams and insulting his girlfriend in their home. With a cigarette in hand, her hair wrapped in a scarf, and an eagerness to sling insults, it’s easy to miss the softness in those half-moon eyes, the loss she had to have encountered as a woman living in this cold city. Perhaps we’ll see more of that softness in future episodes. But for now, this is a character of such staunch, ceaseless dysfunction that she verbally abuses her living son at the funeral for her dead one. I anticipate the revelation of a history of addiction as the series progresses.

Similarly, a character named Emmett (Jacob Latimore) is accosted by a screaming, punching Baby Mama while he blithely attempts to purchase sneakers. This was the point in the episode where I most ardently fought the urge to turn away, or at least fast-forward past the scene. I began to wonder whether the unifying theme of this episode centered around the tumult dragged into various characters’ lives by black women. It is, after all, Ronnie’s ex, Tracy (Tai Davis), who insists that he “do something” about their dead child. When Ronnie murders the boy, he returns the boy’s chain to Tracy, like a tomcat laying a dead bird at his owner’s feet. Tracy, then, is at least as culpable for the death as the shooter.

Conventional misunderstandings of the nature of gun violence and urban blight dictate that it is black men who suffer most. The women stay home and soldier on, while the men are locked up, humiliated, clubbed, and murdered by police. The black family unit, we’re told, is implacably damaged by the absence of paternal figures. Of course, reality is not so stringently delineated across gender lines. Black women are, quite frequently, victims of gun-related crimes. Intimate-partner violence, as well as street harassment, are overwhelmingly dangerous in a city where your abuser could possess a firearm, or very easily attain one. This isn’t to say that a specifically black, male plight isn’t worthy of The Chi’s focus, but it doesn’t feel necessary to highlight their humanity at the expense of their female counterparts. Brandon can simultaneously love his placid, doting girlfriend and entertain light flirtation with his female boss. Kevin is allowed to be sweet when he’s entertaining his crush, then vulgar when he’s with his buddies. Surely the same room for duality and humanity of this show’s female characters can be made.

Over this summer, the brother of one my closest friends was shot and killed at a funeral for his own younger brother. Their mother’s last remaining son, himself wheelchair-bound from a bullet fired years ago, clogged my Facebook feed with his grief-maddened rants and videos. I felt guilty when I muted him, then helpless when I saw his mother, quiet and attempting a smile at a gathering. I would never re-experience these events through a dramatized TV series, I would never wish to see them recreated in the hopes of attesting to their humanity; there are better ways to honor them. In this first episode, The Chi nears a base sort of trauma for the purposes of garnering broader sympathies. I do think that it’s possible to present the realities of gun violence, and its rippling effects, without filling the screen with dead black people. I think of Donald Glover’s series Atlanta, which revolved around an incident with a gun, but refrained from depicting the actual shooting.

In a January 2016 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Waithe spoke of her aspirations for this series, her desires to humanize the city’s black boys. “I feel like we need it to be humanized, in a way. I think when people think of young black men in Chicago, they think of heartless, emotionless sex machines. That they don’t have a soul.” It’s a lofty goal, though I can’t help but question the intended recipients and viewers in need of being taught to think of black men as actual people. Two funerals, two televised dead black boys, and two wailing mothers is an incredible lot to synthesize in one hour-long episode. I worry that Waithe, and also white viewers of this show, believe that hours of televised trauma are the only path towards perceived humanization. I’m reminded of what Toni Morrison once said about Ralph Ellison’s magnum opus, which she suspected to have been written for a primarily white audience: “The title of Ralph Ellison’s book was Invisible Man. And the question for me was ‘Invisible to whom?’ Not to me.”

The Chi Series-Premiere Recap: South Side Story