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What The Chi Gets Right (and Wrong) About Chicago’s South Side

We can get pretty critical about how mass media portrays our neighborhoods. Here’s what to expect from Lena Waithe’s new Showtime series.

Jason Mitchell portrays aspiring chef Brandon in The Chi.   Photo: Matt Dinerstein/SHOWTIME

I’ve resided in Chicago’s black South Side neighborhoods for more than 20 years, and I, like many of my fellow residents, am very particular when it comes to how our culture is depicted on screen.

Just look back a couple years to Chatham native Chance the Rapper’s very public comments on Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, calling out the famous Brooklynite for being "exploitative and problematic." Check out the social media reaction, and you’ll find many Chicagoans siding with the rapper, despite Lee’s filmmaking bonafides. South Siders don’t take kindly to outsiders telling our stories wrong. Simply put, do the right thing.

That bring us to The Chi: I’m now four episodes into the new Chicago-based Showtime series, and it looks like Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe (also of Chatham) is doing right by us. The series, which premiered yesterday, provides viewers with a surprisingly nuanced look into the community-wide effects of gun violence.

The story focuses on four male characters who find their lives intertwined when a shooting causes a domino effect in their South Side neighborhood. (Spoilers follow for the first episode of The Chi.) Brandon is an aspiring chef who is attempting to leave the hood, but becomes gripped with hard decisions after the soul-shattering murder of his brother. Emmett is a man-child in his late teens who gives more attention to his shoe collection than his kids. Ronnie is a middle-aged, jobless wayfarer who takes justice into his own hands after his son is killed. Kevin is a middle-school kid who wants to only worry about grades and girls, but instead finds himself in a situation that requires wisdom beyond his years, which he knows could threaten his life.

It is a relief to watch a show that emphasizes the humanity of a population that is often criminalized in popular culture, giving much-needed context to the sensationalized violence that many deem “senseless.” The Chi is a must-watch TV drama because it forces viewers to see that black men in impoverished, disinvested areas—just like all humans—must make hard decisions based upon the limited information they’re given, the few choices available, their own moral codes, and pressure from their social groups.

I know my fellow South Siders will watch the show through an extra critical lens to judge how accurately their communities are characterized. For the rest of you looking for a frame of reference, here are five things The Chi gets right and wrong about the South Side.

Right

1. Music – I loved that Waithe sought to represent all the notable sounds of Chicago in the first episode. It was refreshing to hear local rappers Sir Michael Rocks, Chance the Rapper, and Noname; by including a beautiful cover of a Thomas Dorsey classic (the man who basically invented modern gospel music in Chicago) and snippets of jazz, she pays homage to how musically diverse the city is. My fingers are crossed to hear 79th’s own G Herbo and Lil’ Bibby later in the season.

2. Food – Corner store snacks, a fried chicken shack, and horrible public school lunches. Brandon, the chef, works in a predominantly white community serving fine cuisine. Is this a commentary on South Side food deserts?

3. Brandon – Actor Jason Mitchell is a New Orleans native, but he excels at playing a Chicago South Sider. His tremendous range as an actor, with an ability to pull your heartstrings, forces you to instantly empathize with his character. After a couple of episodes, I feel I’m watching a relative—and an Emmy-worthy performance.

4. The randomness of violence – Waithe opens The Chi by producing a dead body after a light-hearted moment. She understands that shootings are never convenient and can happen at any time in some neighborhoods.

5. The ripples of violence, long after the bullets strike – A man wrongly accuses someone of killing his son and takes an innocent life. A loving relationship goes sour when one person becomes fixated on finding his loved one’s killer, while his girlfriend pleads for him to go to a police force he mistrusts. The Chi forces the viewer to question what is ethical when men seek justice outside the traditional system that has historically failed them.

Wrong

1. Geography – 79th  Street has never been so close to the Sears Tower (I’m refusing to call it Willis). The Garfield Green Line being next to the Kedzie Pink Line stop also confused me for several minutes.

2. Clothing – I love some of the fashion on this show, particularly the kids. But where are the Moto or acid wash jeans, Jordans, Timbs, and designer belts?

3. Party scenes – Just wait for episode four. Middle school South Side kids, partying like this when parents aren’t home? No way. 

4. Slang – I want more of it! The occasional “G” is said in conversation but this pales in comparison to the dictionary-defying words and phrases in the South Side lexicon. On Bro’nem.

5. Good cop/bad cop – TV rarely presents negative depictions of police without the balance of the “good cop.” Given the very real—and very contemporary—challenges of the Chicago Police Department in black neighborhoods, I found it irksome that The Chi relies on the “good cop/bad cop” narrative. I get the whole “not all cops are bad” sentiment, but it comes off patronizing, especially when the focus of the story is on how black people deal with gun violence, not the humanity or reputation of the police. 

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