There are few shows that authentically engage with the social, political and racial problems that are rooted in present day America, whilst also celebrating the Black community and acknowledging the actions of its historical past. The show occupies a space in which storytelling is one of the most effective ways to connect with a wide audience and lends itself to voices that are traditionally marginalised, often struggling to be heard above the noise and finally are given the opportunity to be front and centre.
Lena Waithe’s ‘The Chi’ does just this.
A five season TV drama series ‘The Chi’ follows the coming of age of three young African American boys - Jake (Micheal Epps), Kevin (Alex Hibbert) and Papa (Shamon Brown) growing up on the Southside of Chicago. Submerged in a community that is fractured by violence inflicted on itself, ‘The Chi’ tackles the institutional systems that have failed African Americans as a whole. We see this through the eyes of children in the education system but also through police brutality on display that realistically mirrors what is currently happening.
One of the best things about this show is its characters -they live and breathe rather than being two dimensional. Women’s role in the ‘spiritual community’ is given a closer look; they are brought to life by beautiful and talented Black actresses. Birgundi Baker who plays Kiesha ,the aspiring student track star seeks to escape from Chiago through further education but goes through her own hardships as she attempts to make the jump. Jada (Yolonda Ross) a nurse, Dre is a school counsellor, but like so many other female characters her importance and presence is felt brightly. The show allows us to dive deeper into their own wants, pressures and needs such as paying rent, parenting, maintaining relationships, self-growth and health issues. All this whilst going through the series and experiencing indescribable trauma that fundamentally changes them, challenging them to be more than supporting roles in men’s lives.
What I love about this show is how relationships heavily focus on the narrative and how characters are presented as neither saints nor sinners. Life is neither black or white. Characters are constantly tested in their ordinary everyday lives and are made to make decisions that affect not just their lives but the people who orbit closest around them forcing them to either take accountability or shrink.
These characters are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters - and we see ourselves in them and become invested in their storylines, especially when they struggle. We see Jake fall short when he cannot live up to the role of playing ‘gangster in the streets’ like his brother, we see relationships fracture but also mend when families feud, we see how people come together during hard times.
The character development I admire the most is Emmett (Jacob Latimore). It’s endearing how when we first meet him in the beginning he’s a 20-year-old with a lack of responsibility who has had multiple children with different women, and his sole purpose is figuring out how to navigate life. He’s irresponsible and every decision he makes seems to be the wrong one, again he messes up. However by the beginning of Season Five we see him mature and grow into his own, becoming a stable father as well as a business owner. As a character he signifies that it’s okay that we’re figuring things out and eventually we’ll get to where we need to be.
Chicago is known for being a violent city, famous rapper Lil Durk refers to the windy city as ‘Chi-rack’ in a number of his songs. It should be noted that the first season aired in2018, the same year that the US Black Lives Matter movement began taking off.That year Stephon Clark was shot seven times by police in his Grandmother's backyard in California. The very first episode of ‘The Chi’ opens with a young African American being shot. The BLM protests have grown over the years as the public outcry in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020 as well as the murder of Breonna Taylor gained significant worldwide attention.
Two years prior to ‘The Chi’ being airing, filmmaker Ava DuVernay in her Netflix documentary ‘13TH’ explored the history of racial inequality in the United States, the victimisation of African Americans and how they are born into a system of oppression through no control of their own. Tying this into a show that doesn’t hide from the social and political climate that it is being shown in ‘The Chi’ we get dreamers, gangsters, alcoholics, college athletes, and normal everyday people are who figuring out life as it happens inheriting their environment and the generational problems that go with it.
The show boasts an array of talented actors such as Steven Williams and Luke James who have recurring roles as Victor and Q. Each of the characters are important to the community, have the desire to either escape or better whether that is from reinvesting through Black owned business, starting up charities or posing the question does the end justify the means when sometimes they have to make morally skewed decisions.
‘The Chi’ is a conversation between actions and consequences. Exploring how our decisions shape who we are, but how they affect our loved ones, strangers and wider community. It also tackles the exploration of the comfortability of growth, as well as friendship. I hope the show is renewed as I want to see Kevin, Jake and Papa develop into young adults. I'm heavily invested in where they end up as people.