Black pain. Gun violence. Poverty. Single mothers. Drugs. Teen pregnancy. Unemployment. It’s the South Side that everyone (outside of it) thinks that they know. I once took a Jack the Ripper tour in London where the guide listed Chicago’s South Side as an example of the “neighborhoods you avoid.” You know, like Jack the Ripper’s hunting ground. The South Side has even become one of 45’s favorite deflections to his own chicanery as he has asked on more than one occasion, “What the hell is going on in Chicago?”
In actuality, the South Side of the city is a collection of neighborhoods ranging from the poverty-ravaged favorites of media portrayal to the middle- and upper-class neighborhoods that have remained economically stable, gentrification-resistant and predominantly black. Yet, media presents Chicago’s South Side as a single-area community characterized by urban blight. But South-siders know the South Side. I am a South-sider and, fortunately, for this series, so were executive producer Common and creator/executive producer Lena Waithe.
Emmy-winning Waithe gave us her first representation of Chicago’s South Side in the “Thanksgiving” episode of Aziz Ansari’s Masters of None. Taking a humorous approach to detailing her coming out to her family, we see three generations of a matriarchal family living in a quiet, working-class Chicago neighborhood. It reminds me of the South Side neighborhoods largely ignored in media portrayals. The Chi doesn’t focus on these neighborhoods and, knowing how black writers struggle with the pressure of representation, I cannot criticize Waithe for not picking up the gauntlet on this particular issue. (I’ll save that for observations later in this review.)
Waithe doesn’t shy away from the cinematic representation of one of Chicago’s most blighted neighborhoods. In the premiere episode, Coogie (Jahking Guillory) serves as our lens through a bike ride tour of dilapidated properties, loitering black bodies and the local Arab-owned corner store. Coogie—a quirky and likable teen with his colorful apparel, wild, lengthy hair and gift of gab—immediately endears the viewer, and we attach to his point of view without reservation. Through it, we see the meta-workings of a community beneath its unappealing exterior: respect for elders, self-governance, trade and black market.
The series is reminiscent of HBO’s The Wire, specifically season four, which focused on a similar community in Baltimore and its strained school system. In both, children and teens carry the narrative, good and bad representations of local police are characterized, and distressed communities are laid bare for consumption before an audience that has developed an appetite for on-camera black violence. It’s uncertain whether casting The Wire’s Sonja Sohn was a deliberate nod to the series, but her presence in a similar setting certainly will create a mental link for fans of both shows.
What shines through in The Chi are the strong and diverse portrayals of black lives within a single neighborhood, most notably: a sous chef from the hood and his “bougie” girlfriend, a lesbian couple raising a teen and a middle-schooler and a teenage playboy saddled with single fatherhood. However, the series portrayal ultimately serves the setting of (for better or worse) a close-knit community isolated by decades of government neglect and disdain.
With that said, a surprising and glaring omission in the series are the lives of women outside of their relationships to men. In the four episodes previewed, I noted: grief-stricken mothers of slain sons, girlfriends (wanted and unwanted), babies’ mamas and single mothers. Every single female-identified character’s sole interaction in the series supports that of a male character. It’s as if the words of Ronnie’s grandmother to her nurse, “Our boys are all we got,” serve as the scope for the series. If you are looking for Waithe’s “Thanksgiving” in The Chi, it won’t be found in episodes one through four.
Still, The Chi is a well-written series with as many small humorous moments as large heart-wrenching ones. The premiere episode demonstrates a fearlessness to upset any appearances of stability—much like the experiences of neglected communities like the one it portrays. The series places itself in direct conversation with the media’s extremely vocal characterizations of the South Side. It reminds me of Henry Louis Gates’s assertion that black texts signify or talk back to other texts. The Chi is clearly talking and we South-siders are listening.