Jahking Guillory (Kicks, 2017), opens the series on a bicycle. In a coming of age story about boys from rough neighborhoods, a bicycle is necessary to remind the audience of the youthfulness and duality that society likes to forget black men can possess. This young man is Coogie, who acts as the intersection at which all these lives cross. He’s a charming young man with a head full of beautiful curls and a smile that can charm his way into free jerky an soda. Remember this smile. It’s the smile you see on a young black man’s face when they don’t have to worry about being demonized in society by whomever. He carries the true smile of the carefreee black boy, but trouble will always find its way because that’s the nature of the streets he’s dealing with. Remember this smile, not just for this character, but for every young man of color trying to navigate life without attracting the trouble society associates with his neighborhood and skin.
His older brother, Brandon (Jason Mitchell, Straight Outta Compton), is trying to work his way up the ladder at a sushi restaurant from food prep, to a line cook. Without knowing too much about his background, we can see that he has ambition and drive to open a restaurant with his girlfriend one day. Then, there’s the alcoholic mother who shows up unexpectedly, and when tragedy strikes the family, we see the strength he musters to push through and keep his family under control. Just like Coogie, he’s smart, he just has a better understanding of where to invest his time and energy. This could help him go far as the series progresses.
Coogie sells a pair of shoes to Emmett (Jacob Lattimore, Sleight), a young man who can’t seem to keep it in his pants. He finds himself deciding he has to step up as a father, while still stumbling along the way to manhood. His mother is tired of cleaning up after his messes, leaving him with no choice but to face the music when his past catches back up to him in a shoe store. He’s a player, a pretty face, and has very little consideration for the bigger picture. There is a fine line between carefree and careless, and reality usually smacks people like us dead in the face.
Emmett’s current fling’s brother, Kevin (Alex R. Hibbert, Moonlight), crosses paths with Coogie at a corner store. Kevin appears to be your average preteen boy, stockful of awkward diction when saying the word “fuck,” and a posse to roast. He’s the boy you picture when someone mentions a “bad” younger cousin. Then we find out that he’s a hopeless romantic. The fact is undeniable as we’ll see lengths he’ll go to for his beloved, which include signing up for a play he’s not that interested in, and asking his sister to use her phone to text “this girl.” We see that young love that gives you unfamiliar butterflies and makes everything blurry and crystal clear all at once. It’s a navigation through love that I’m excited to see more of.
Elsewhere, we have Ronnie ( Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Queen of Katwe), whose search for his inherited son Jason’s killer drives the action of the episode. He’s in many ways the summation of the tragic side of Chicago. He’s an oldhead, so he knows who to ask, and where to go to take matters into his own hands, since the police, who know him on a first name basis, can’t seem to find answers. The streets are self-governing, and sometimes you have to be your own sheriff. After all those years of knowing the game, he knows to shoot first and ask questions later. But sometimes, your lack of qualifications means you get it wrong. And boy, does Ronnie get it wrong.
For most people, we don’t stop “coming of age” just because we become teenagers, or we pay our first light bill. No, There are moments where you have to decide without thinking, and muscle through whatever it is life is throwing your way. These moments shape how we view life and our approach to it, giving us room to empathize with the choices of each major male character as they’re trying to navigate their hardships. These characters represent a different milestone in manhood, from several different viewpoints. The first crush, the paternity tests, or building an empire from the ground up- these are key moments that shape who these characters are and they’re journey forward.
Now, while this story is mostly about men and their experiences in life, the women serve more as backbone than backdrop in this series. Jerrika (Tiffany Boone, The Following) is more than a nagging girlfriend, she genuinely supports Brandon and plans to be his partner in opening the restaurant. Andrea (Mariah Gordon), with her own agency and self-assurance at such a young age, is going be the one of first times girls her age see themselves on television, reflected authentically and without dismissal. Keisha (Birgundi Baker), acts as another intersection between major characters. Yolonda Ross plays Emmett’s mother, Jada, who’s interaction with Keisha solidified The Chi on my watchlist. When she realizes Keisha is hiding under the bed, she doesn’t shame her, but instead invites her to stay for breakfast. Sonja Sohn (The Wire) plays Laverne, Coogie and Brandon’s alcoholic mother, and with Sohn’s acting ability, I am itching to get to the next episode to see her disappear further into this woman.
Lena’s attempt to display the humanity and complexity of this city was not lost on its audience. It wasn’t just about telling the stories of Chicago, it was making sure that the people telling the story knew what they were talking about. Much of the cast comes from Chicago, and the soundtrack features songs from Chicago musicians such as Chance the Rapper and NoName. It was important to her and Common to do things this way, which I personally believe has to do with the mishandling of similar narratives, such as Chiraq (2015).
This the strongest pilot I’ve seen since This Is Us. The characterization of these characters and hinting at how their paths will cross is natural enough that I’d forgotten I was only watching the first episode. Common and Lena Waithe, both natives of Chicago, have a monster on their hands. In 2018, when queer and black voices are being amplified, they are setting the standard. Dimension, empathy, Chicago artists on the soundtrack, and a modern take on the storytelling of cinematography- they have mastered the recipe of the “Boyz ‘N Da Hood” rhetoric. Sonja Sohn has described the young actors in the cast as the next class, which sums up my thoughts perfectly. The Chi airs on Showtime Sundays at 10/9c, and episodes are also available on the Showtime Anytime app at midnight on Sundays. The series makes its debut tonight, so be sure to tune in!