Back to IndieWire

‘The Chi’ Review: Lena Waithe’s Compelling Showtime Drama Highlights the Beating Heart in Chicago’s South Side

With an excellent, expansive ensemble, "The Chi" tells a human story of institutional failure made all the more powerful by its marked compassion.

The Chi Season 1 Episode 3 Jason Mitchell and Kristina Emerson

Matt Dinerstein / Showtime

IWCriticsPick

There is so much to discuss within “The Chi,” one could almost be forgiven for neglecting to mention its stellar soundtrack. The opening scene, for instance, is filled with key moments in the story and context about its city, but it’s also set to Chicago-local Chance the Rapper’s “All We Got” — a meaningful choice both in the rapper’s home and the song’s tone. It’s hopeful, rhythmic, and quickly gets its hooks into you, just like the show implementing it. There’s more going on than appears on-screen, which quickly becomes a common trait in Lena Waithe’s elegantly told and compellingly watchable Showtime drama.

Ostensibly a beautiful montage capturing the city’s South Side from morning to night, the first scene follows teenager Coogie (Jahking Guillory) as he rides his bike through the streets, stopping to shoot hoops, race a motorcyclist, and haggle for a discounted pop with a local shop owner. The sun peaks through a cloudy Midwestern sky, casting gray light on brick murals as the passing L train rattles by overhead. Lasting just a few minutes, director Rick Famuyiwa provides a quick, telling sense of place by tracking the teenager’s average day out of school, evoking the setting’s unique spirit with immediate authenticity.

But the significance of this scene — which takes a turn dramatic enough to make viewers forget the beauty of what came before — doesn’t hit home until the episode’s end. It’s your first clue there’s more to “The Chi” than initially meets the eye. Yes, Famuyiwa establishes his location, and yes, that location is important. Chicago is a political hotbed; a talking point thrown out time and time again to illustrate what’s going wrong with gangs, police, and everyone caught in between. The scene’s ending relates to that, setting in motion the series’ main narrative. It’s definitely a critical juncture for the show overall, but those heartening, wordless opening shots end up mattering as much as anything else.

The Chi Season 1 Episode 3 Alex Hibbert and Jason Mitchell

And that’s because “The Chi” doesn’t treat its characters as a means to an end. For all the issues that need to be addressed in Chicago (and the state of Illinois), “The Chi” targets big topics by prioritizing the day-to-day lives of its residents. Coogie’s bike ride isn’t meant to cast the city in a negative light or hold greater metaphorical value (like the opening scene of “The Wire,” which ends on the now iconic answer, “It’s America, man.”) It’s telling you who Coogie is, and who he is means quite a bit.

Hell, the full weight of the deceptively simple introduction won’t set in until the season (and maybe even the series) comes to a close. That, by itself, makes for exciting television, but there’s plenty to relish in the first four episodes. “The Chi” quickly proves itself adept at stringing together long- and short-term payoffs. To slightly spoil the premise, the series circles around a young man’s murder. Coogie finds his body and becomes a person of interest to the police, despite his innocence. From there, we’re introduced to a slew of loosely connected residents.

Brandon (Jason Mitchell, in an award-worthy turn) is Coogie’s older brother and an aspiring chef who works in an up-and-coming restaurant. He lives with his whip-smart and encouraging girlfriend, Jerrika (Tiffany Boone), and does his best to keep Coogie on the right track (and away from his regularly drunk mother, played by Sonja Sohn). An even younger generation is seen mainly through the eyes of Kevin (Alex Hibbert, again earning the spotlight he first got for “Moonlight”), a grade schooler in love, and Emmett (Jacob Latimore), a teen who’s forced into a new life after his playboy lifestyle gets the best of him.

His mother is Jada (Yolonda Ross), who’s giving her son some much needed tough love when she’s not working as an in-house nurse for Ronnie’s grandma. Who’s Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), you ask? Well, he’s the murdered kid’s father figure, and he’s still very much in love with the boy’s mother, Tracy (Tai Davis), who wants him to find out what happened to “their” son.

The Chi Season 1 Episode 1 Armando Riesco and Jahking Guillory

She expects Ronnie to take care of it because she doesn’t trust the cops — and she’s not alone. When confronted with a problem typically meant for the police, most of these characters decide it’s best if they handle things themselves. “The cops aren’t going to do shit!” is a common sentiment, but its motivation is largely understood from subtle context within the show (and an onslaught of headlines and news stories in the real-world). The few cops we get to know onscreen aren’t evil men. One lesser character might be immorally motivated, but the main law enforcement representative is honestly trying to do what’s right. Played by Armando Riesco, Detective Rick Cruz isn’t meant to shoulder all the blame; he’s there to put a face to the issues, just like everyone else.

As episodes roll forward, the question of who killed the young Chicagoan may slip from viewers’ minds — which is a good thing; there’s more to think about than just a murder mystery. Lena Waithe, Common (an executive producer who also starts his guest star arc in Episode 4), and showrunner Elwood Reid are trying to build an intimate understanding of a city’s citizens instead of throwing stones at the system around them.

Humanizing a city that’s been reduced to flamboyant verbiage like “American carnage” has never been more important, especially when “The Chi” focuses primarily on the people who are accused of waging a “war on police.” They’re not, and while the show isn’t necessarily arguing it’s the other way around, it doesn’t exonerate the police either. “The Chi” acknowledges the complexity of its city through the complexity of its characters, and because it cares very much about those characters, viewers will, too.

Just don’t sleep on the soundtrack. There’s plenty to learn about Chicago, but there’s a lot to enjoy, too.

Grade: A-

“The Chi” premieres Sunday, January 7 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime. Watch the first episode for free on YouTube

This Article is related to: Television and tagged , ,