Last year, Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win an Emmy for writing in a comedy series, for her work on Master of None’s stellar “Thanksgiving” episode. This year, Waithe is launching her own show, The Chi, on Showtime. According to her profile in the New York Times, she went with Showtime because she’s a big fan of The Affair, which if this doesn’t immediately endear her to Duana, I don’t know what will. The premiere for The Chi was last night, and the show debuts this weekend. It looks great. The obvious comparison is Atlanta, but The Chi looks like it will have more story sprawl than that, with an ensemble cast and a multi-generational narrative. Waithe’s goal is to show Chicago, particularly the South Side, as “[n]ot bad. Not perfect. Just accurate.”
We could use some accuracy. Even in good times, Chicago has a reputation. The gun violence here makes international news. There are ticker counts for how many people were shot, how many killed, over any given weekend in the city. Every few months, it seems, there’s a new smash-and-grab robbery trend (there’s a weirdly DIY approach to B&E in Chicago) making headlines. Everyone talks about the time the mayor’s kid got mugged—if HE isn’t safe, how are ANY of us?! But of course, these aren’t good times.
Before, we were the president’s hometown. Where he met his wife, raised his family, where he first got elected. Barack Obama was the best of the city, proof that Chicago is more than a six o’clock news bulletin. You can come from the South Side and be PRESIDENT. Now, we’re one of the new president’s favorite punching bags. Whenever that tangerine disgrace has to make some bullsh*t point about gun violence, he yells about Chicago. Strict gun laws, but look at all the violence! Yeah, look at our lax f*ckin’ neighbor states doing jack sh*t to help us out by cracking down on guns BEFORE they cross state lines. I’ve lived in the city for years but this past Thanksgiving was the first time I fielded non-stop questions about the violence when I visited family out of state, and I know why they’re all so suddenly knowledgeable about Chicago’s crime statistics, with ZERO systemic context for it.
So I hope Lena Waithe’s show blows up. I hope The Chi becomes one of those things we all talk about, and it’s Part Of The Conversation this year. I hope Lena Waithe herself becomes A Name, another person representing the Chi, showing that we’re not just a bunch of f*cking gun stats. It’s a lot of weight, a lot of responsibility, and it’s not any one person’s job to carry all that. All Lena Waithe should have to do is succeed for Lena Waithe. But “the Chi” has become more than a city, more than just a collection of neighborhoods. We’re in the national conversation, representing one of the thorniest issues my country faces. Our president trots us out like a naughty kid to be spanked at those weird-ass rallies he keeps holding. There’s an entire television franchise of shows about how prolifically busy our first responders are.
That’s what Lena Waithe and The Chi are up against. And she seems to know it, with her emphasis on showing the South Side authentically, on telling stories that are “accurate”, on not burdening her characters with perfection but also not assuming every black man on the South Side is born with a gun in his hand. There are problems, I’m not blind to them. But the South Side, and Chicago, are a lot more than the latest murder stats on the news. I’m excited that Lena Waithe is using her voice to tell a real story about Chicago.