‘The Chi’ Hits Home With Post-Trauma Complexities
The Chi is three episodes in, and the buzz surrounding the South Side Chicago-based series is mounting.
The Showtime show, created by Emmy Award winner Lena Waithe, chronicles black life on Chicago’s South Side. And while it starts off with a death, it’s about much more than just gun violence. Like Waithe said on Morning Shift, the show invites the audience to “live in that space with the family” — the people who are left behind to deal with the deaths of those they love.
Since its start, the show’s authenticity and portrayal of Chicago’s South Side and Chicago people has been a big topic of discussion.
Is it just ‘another’ show about gun violence?
But although it’s uncomfortable to see the aftermath of violence on our TV screens, it feels familiar. Many of us know a Jason and a Coogie, who lost their lives way too soon. And, many of us have been in those families, left to pick up the pieces post-tragedy. We might try to go back to where our lives left off: going to work like Brandon or back to school like Kevin. But anyone who’s experienced loss — or witnessed it first-hand — can tell you that things are never the same again.
An alternate argument is that these stories are best told from Chicago people — like Waithe and fellow executive producer Common — so that they can be told in a more authentic way. The Chi doesn’t feel like a Chi-Raq, which was satirical but still highly criticized for its inaccuracies. It’s something totally different, and although it does have its funny moments, it doesn’t make light of the real reasons why people in Chicago might pick up a gun.
Do the characters feel like real people?
Waithe said she wanted her characters to be multifaceted “because no one’s life is all good or all bad, all comedy or all drama. It’s literally a mix of both.” And it seems that in the first three episodes, there’s a focus on depicting the very human — and often conflicting — sides of average people.
Ronnie is an addict, a confidential informant, and now, a killer, but he’s also a father figure who is trying to be the emotional support for the woman he loves. He’s making mistake after mistake, and it’s literally haunting him.
Emmett didn’t want to be Emmett Jr.’s father, and it’s hard on him. But now that he knows the baby is his, he’s trying to work hard and figure it all out, even though things aren’t going in his favor. He has to find a way to grow up — and fast.
Brandon was on the career come up before the death of his brother, Coogie. It’s likely that before this incident, he would never even think about getting a gun. He’s now in different situations and in a much different mindset.
We know these people, and their complexities can be the setup for some unexpected turns.
Does the show accurately depict the South Side?
Arguably, there are some things in The Chi that only Chicagoans, who know our city inside and out, would notice — like the kids in the show not necessarily having South Side Chicago accents, or using Chicago slang, or filming scenes on the West Side.
But are those things really important when movies and TV shows film in other cities and areas than where they are set? The Chi may not be all South Side in the technical sense, but it works hard to give the feel of what it’s like. And the actors, who are tremendously talented, are able to portray relatable characters that draw audiences in.
Catching up on past episodes
Although we’re late to the recap party, here’s a look at the first three episodes of The Chi and the conversations surrounding them.
The first two episodes immediately dive into the aftermath of what can happen in a community when a person is killed, using interconnected families all dealing with their own kinds of grief.
While doing the very normal teenage things of playing basketball, riding a bike, and feeding a dog, Coogie (Jahking Guillory) — a vibrant, talkative, baby-faced kid who can finesse his way into getting bargain prices at a corner store — hears arguing and then sees a body lying dead on the ground. He notices he has on new shoes and a chain, so he steals them. He’s arrested, but let go when Detective Cruz (Armando Riesco) realizes he didn’t murder anyone.
We find out later that the victim, Jason (Lucien Cambric), is a well-known and loved teen basketball star. When Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who raised Jason like a father, hears that Coogie was seen standing over the body, he confronts the teen and shoots him out of rage. He seems confused at what he’s done, and then remorseful, and runs away.
Although this isn’t technically the first teen to die in the show, this death is different: the audience sees the confrontation, hears the gunshot, and watches the life drain out of Coogie as he lies on the ground. The imagery is intentional, and by this point in the show, we know Coogie. We know he’s a good kid who may be mischievous, but he’s no killer. And yet, his life was cut short. Two kids are gone in what seems to be a few days’ time.
A middle-school aged Kevin (Alex Hibbert) and his friends were playing nearby — well, really arguing about a girl — when the shot goes off. Ronnie runs by as Kevin is walking in an alley. He sees Kevin and knows he can identify him, but he keeps going. The next day, Kevin is at school trying out for the school play because he’s still able to do what many middle-school aged boys do, which is chase girls. (A girl he really likes got him to sign up for auditions so he has to go through with it.)
Witnessing a murder and trying out for a school play shouldn’t be business as usual for a kid, but they sometimes are, and the normalcy of how he treats both events is another purposeful decision by Waithe and her team.
Ronnie does try to chase Kevin so he can “talk” to him later, but Kevin runs away. Overall, Ronnie is glad that he’s seemingly solved Jason’s murder and has reconnected with Jason’s mother, Tracy (Tai'isha Davis), who he still loves. He’s walking down the street with a pep in his step and groceries in his arms for dinner with Tracy when Detective Cruz confronts him. Cruz says that Coogie’s death seems like payback for losing Jason and tells him that Coogie didn’t kill Jason. Ronnie is left looking shocked on the street. He drops his grocery bags and walks away in a daze.
The fact that Ronnie never thought about the possibility of Coogie being innocent before seems sort of strange, but perhaps he’d really conditioned himself to believe that he wasn’t. Maybe it was the delayed realization that he took the life of another kid — who someone else had lovingly raised — that was the sobering event.
On episode three
Coogie’s brother Brandon (Jason Mitchell) starts his process of getting revenge for his death by trying to buy a gun, but the deal goes bad, and he gets beat up. Brandon is an aspiring cook, and he’s working hard to move up the ladder in the swanky restaurant he works in so that he can eventually open up his own spot with his girlfriend. He’s not into street life, and definitely not experienced in gun deals.
Brandon and Coogie’s mother, Laverne (Sonja Sohn), is selling the family house — likely in an attempt to run away from the pain of losing Laverne’s youngest son. She hasn’t been able to go in his room and get rid of his things yet.
Brandon tries to get his girlfriend, Jerrika (Tiffany Boone), to talk Laverne out of selling the house, but Jerrika admits to her that with the Obama Center coming and the University of Chicago opening its trauma center, they can likely get more money for their Woodlawn home than ever. But that causes a rift between the couple.
Ronnie, who was in recovery, is back on drugs and being haunted by Coogie. He’s trying to apologize to Tracy for being a no-show on their dinner date on the night he found out he’d killed the wrong person, but she’s not trying to hear it. He starts a search to look for Jason’s cellphone so that Tracy can recover photos from it, and hopefully, rekindle their relationship.
He’s also trying to still track down Kevin and shows up at his school when he gets out of class. While running away from Ronnie, Kevin inadvertently gets his friends signed up for the school play, too. With brightly colored wigs on backstage, the friends, Jake (Michael Epps) and Papa (Shamon Brown), convince Kevin he should actually go talk to Ronnie “man-to-man.”
Kevin looks for Ronnie, and we see them talk, but don’t get to hear what they say. Afterwards, Kevin asks Brandon to walk him home. Ronnie reveals he’s been waiting for them near a viaduct.
Kevin might be a kid, but he’s in self-preservation mode. Kevin told Brandon that the only reason he’d told him about Ronnie was because he thought Brandon would kill Ronnie and then Kevin would be safe.
On the lighter side of things, Emmett and his antics with girls continue to bring a little comedy relief. He almost gets caught in his girlfriend Keisha’s bedroom and has to hop through the window onto the fire escape. It’s the opposite of episode one, when Keisha has to hide under Emmett’s bed. But his struggle to take care of his son is real and continues to intensify. Primarily, he needs money for supplies and childcare, and he’s trying to talk his way into some extra job opportunities to get it.
- We know that Brandon’s gun deal went wrong, so unexpectedly facing off against Ronnie leaves him in a vulnerable situation. Ronnie also sold his gun in episode two, so we don’t know what will actually happen in this interaction.
- Quentin (Steven Williams) — a kingpin elder — is back in town. He starts looking into Jason’s death because he says it’s “bad for business” since he was killed near one of their stash houses. He’s back in town for something specific, though. It’s just unclear what all that is.
- The women on the show haven’t really been driving the storyline just yet — Waithe has explained she purposely wrote black men to drive the narrative — but with Jerrika selling a house to Quentin, albeit suspiciously, maybe she’ll have a larger role in upcoming episodes. Like WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore said, black women in Chicago are also at the cusp of these traumatic experiences and are often leading the charge to combat them. Laverne and Emmett’s mom, Jada (Yolonda Ross), may also have developing roles.
Arionne Nettles is a digital producer at WBEZ. To share your comments and thoughts on The Chi, tweet her at @arionnenettles.