Lena Waithe’s ‘The Chi’ debuts tonight — sad truths, disturbing images and all

SHARE Lena Waithe’s ‘The Chi’ debuts tonight — sad truths, disturbing images and all

Michael Epps as Jake (from left), Alex Hibbert as Kevin and Shamon Brown Jr. as Papa in “The CHI.” | Parrish Lewis/SHOWTIME

The highly anticipated Showtime series “The Chi,” which premieres at 9 p.m. today, is no Huxtable tale.

Written by Lena Waithe, who is also one of the executive producers (along with rapper and actor Common), “The Chi” is a gritty look at life in a Chicago neighborhood that could be Englewood, Auburn-Gresham or Austin.

This is a place where a generation of hardworking black folks built strong community only to see it weakened by another generation ill-prepared to preserve their legacy.

There are, of course, the obligatory shots of Chicago’s architectural wonders in this series. But it is the overgrown lots, alleys, abandoned commercial strips and shots of the screeching “L” bathed in the glow of a setting sun that strikes the tone for “The Chi.”


Waithe, a Chicago native, has invited viewers to come into the kitchen where dirty dishes are piled up in the sink.

At the center of her storytelling is the corner liquor/grocery store owned by “Arabs.” A black and white photograph of the late Mayor Harold Washington still hangs on the wall.

“Always ‘gypping’ us over,” complains Emmett (Jacob Latimore), a young single father with multiple baby mamas on his back.

“Y’all need to hire somebody from the neighborhood like me, like my black a–,” he said, clearly frustrated by his child support obligations.

Like so many other fed-up grandmothers, Emmett’s mother, Jada (Yolonda Ross), declares she’s no longer taking up the slack.

“If it’s your child, it’s your responsibility. I’m done raising little boys,” she says, handing Emmett his son.

But in another scene, Jada tries to comfort her son after he struggles to provide care for his own son. She pulls her son’s head on her knee and rubs her fingers through his hair.

Tender scenes like that balance the rawness in his series that some viewers might find offensive.

Yolonda Ross as Jada and Jacob Latimore as Emmett in “The Chi.” | Matt Dinerstein/Showtime

Yolonda Ross as Jada and Jacob Latimore as Emmett in “The Chi.” | Matt Dinerstein/Showtime

After all, it is disturbing to see kids portraying kids so exposed to violence, that they urge an adult to “get a gun and use it.”

Jake (Michael Epps), Papa (Shamon Brown Jr.) and Kevin (Alex Hibbert) should have taken us back to a time when our only worry was being chased by the neighborhood bully.

Instead, these kids are trying to impress girls one minute, and trying to avoid getting killed the next.

In a neighborhood plagued by drug and alcohol abuse, freakiness abounds and Waithe doesn’t spare us this sad truth.

So if you are judgmental when it comes to black women being presented as booty-bare hoes, “The Chi” may not be for you.

RELATED: Lena Waithe feels distinctly qualified to tell stories of The Chi, Bill Zwecker reports Showtime’s stellar ‘The Chi’ is a rich portrait of Chicago’s South Side

Unlike crime dramas where homicide is treated like something out of the ordinary, “The Chi” depicts gun violence like a part of everyday life.

In Episode 1 (which now can be viewed free on Facebook, Youtube and sho.com), Coogie (Jahking Guillory) stumbles upon the body of a high school basketball star lying in a pool of blood — and the teen doesn’t even flinch.

Instead, he methodically slips a gold medallion from around the dead teen’s neck and takes expensive athletic shoes off the victim’s feet.

Then Coogie, who, by the way, is wearing a pink headband, pink socks and yellow gym shoes, slips the dead teen’s chain around his own neck.

Later, he sells the victim’s shoes to Emmett, a self-described gym-shoe addict.

It is hard to reconcile that Coogie is the same teen who regularly feeds beef jerky to a pit bull chained up in the yard of a drug stash house.

The consequences of the basketball player’s murder start to take shape before the victim is laid to rest.

Although this series is filled with characters whose lives are like tangled rope, there are those who have managed to avoid the drama.

Brandon (Jason Mitchell) and Jerrika (Tiffany Boone), for instance, had escaped the cycle of dysfunction that could have resulted from Brandon’s growing up with an alcoholic mother.

The couple had dreams of opening their own restaurant when the unthinkable happened.

When Brandon is about to get dragged into the sphere of violence, Jerrika tries to save him.

“I really need to know you are not going to try to do something stupid,” she pleaded.

“The police ain’t gone do shit,” Brandon fired back.

Unfortunately, that is the Chicago that too many of us know.

Waithe has given us characters who will resonate with Chicagoans, particularly those of us who grew up on the South and West Sides, because they are real.

We might not like them. But we know them.

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