Showtime’s “The Chi” gives viewers a glimpse of ourselves
This story has been updated to remove an incorrect statement that Ayanna Floyd Davis is a Chicago native. She grew up in Chicago but was not born there and changes have been made to reflect that.
Television has become a prime arena for protecting and preserving Black spaces. The more room we are given to merely exist on our own terms, the more characters and stories are produced, complete with complexity and integrity. Its influence extends beyond entertainment; diverse television ensures that our friends, our family and ourselves are reflected back to us.
Showtime series “The Chi,” created and executively produced by Lena Waithe, is no exception. Best known for her Emmy-winning writing on “Master of None,” Waithe is always working. She’s executively produced BET’s “Boomerang” and wrote the upcoming thriller “Queen and Slim.”
After an emotionally-charged debut season, fans eagerly watched the season two premiere on April 7 after a yearlong wait. Waithe was equally, if not more, excited for its return, releasing the episodes three days early.
This season, characters that viewers have grown to accept as family are in the midst of new journeys. True to the show, reality is reflected in how old seasons are not erased, but carried into the collective shared experiences known as life. Season one explores how one bullet has such a ripple effect on the surrounding community. Characters and communities form an ecosystem, becoming increasingly intertwined as time passes, including from the first season into the second.
The first episode (no spoilers ahead) explored themes surrounding the importance of mental health, both treated and untreated. After a season testing the limits of family, love and identity, a period of healing is needed. We are not just ingesting instances of trauma and moving onto a new storyline, but digesting them, delving deeper into the humanity of it all.
Jason Mitchell, known for his role as Eazy-E in “Straight Outta Compton,” plays Brandon Johnson in “The Chi.” Johnson, a promising chef balances the pain from his past, reality of his present and hopes for his future. Shortly before the season two premiere, Vibe magazine’s Keith Nelson Jr. interviewed Mitchell to discuss what’s in store for his character. Mitchell reflected upon when Waithe asked him where he imagined Brandon’s story going.
“Normally in film, you have this beginning middle and end structure,” Mitchell said. “You have this character arc. You know exactly where this character is headed. When she approached me with that, it kind of puts me in a different mind frame. So digging deep and going into who this character can be is a real question.”
The team behind “The Chi” sees beyond the realm of the television screen. These characters are larger than life to the point where the lines blur between their lives and our own. Mitchell internalized the question about Brandon’s future, wanting to do him justice.
“I hope with shows like this, we're not only able to create jobs,” Mitchell said. “But we're also able to create this truth for ourselves, as black people, that we can understand.”
Authenticity is not limited to the realm of the characters, but behind the scenes as well. A.V. Club’s Danette Chavez spoke with Ayanna Floyd Davis, the new showrunner of season two of “The Chi.”
As a fellow Chicago South-Sider with the invaluable perspective of Black women, this shift works towards what Floyd Davis calls “neighborhood drama.”
“This was deliberate, it was intention,” Floyd Davis said. “We’re very much trying to make the show feel like Chicago in front of the camera, as well as behind the scenes.”
“The Chi” is an example of content created with care and a connection to both its characters and its audience. It has universal appeal. Regardless of where you are from, the heart and hustle of Chicago is contagious.
Following season one, Waithe sat down to talk “The Chi” with the Breakfast Club Power 105.1 in May 2018. Waithe’s heart was in the same place a year ago as it is today, as she spoke from the same perspective that had such an impact on Mitchell.
“I don’t want to ever be so far away that people feel like they can’t reach out and touch me,” Waithe said. “If they can’t touch me, I can’t touch them. And if I’m not touching them, how can I write them?”
“The Chi” is personal to Waithe, but remains bigger than herself. Airing Sundays at 9 p.m., this intimate portrayal of Chicago natives, from a couple of Chicago natives themselves, serves an ode to both a city and a people, flaws and all.