‘The Chi’ Captures Life in the Streets of Chicago’s South Side

The Chi” is all grit and personality. A sharply-written drama, it wants to serve as an insightful chronicle of what life is like right now in the streets of Chicago’s south side. It’s a series of its time and place, framed specifically in this post-Obama moment when race relations remain volatile, class divisions glaring and the rigors of poverty just as unforgiving as ever. This is the kind of show that is a response to a sitcom like “Black-ish,” which is brilliant in its own way but stays firmly set within a middle class black world. “The Chi” is an authentic drama set within a working class African American community, with the kind of challenging questions and characters you find in films by Spike Lee or John Singleton. It understands how in a world of economic hardship happy endings are rare, social habits weigh people down and consumerism provides a false sense of worth.

The show is essentially a portrait of various lives interlinked by the hardships and occasional violence plaguing their community. In the season opener a sudden murder starts interlinking various lives. There are the kids, who grow up a little too fast in a world where you have to fend for yourself early on. The main character is Kevin (Alex R. Hibbert) a young kid trying to impress a girl at school by joining a play who is suddenly thrown into the middle of a serious conflict when he witnesses a crime. His brother Emmett (Jacob Latimore) spends his time sleeping around while avoiding the responsibilities of the child he’s already had with a previous girlfriend, instead obsessing over buying endless pairs of high-end sneakers. The crime Kevin witnesses involved someone connected to another local named Brandon (Jason Mitchell of “Mudbound”), who is serious about his career as a professional cook and plans to open a restaurant with his girlfriend Jerrika (Tiffany Boone). But even Brandon can’t escape being pulled in by unfortunate, local conflicts which could derail his and other lives.

The first thing that should be said about “The Chi” is that it respects its viewers enough not to romanticize or sentimentalize its subject matter too much. Writer/creator Lena Waithe,, as well as fellow producer Common, are interested in creating an experience that feels fully authentic in the way these characters speak and live. Like Common’s own music, the style of “The Chi” is meant to explore the human experience of certain socio-economic conditions. The storylines deal with how we’re prone to making unwise choices out of anger, or how society conditions us to view each other in certain ways. It’s not a judgmental show, Waithe is simply holding up a mirror to a corner of the country mostly defined by crime reports on the evening news. The dialogue is peppered with a mix of starkness and social commentary. In one scene a local vagabond named Trice (Tosin Morohunfola) tells his drinking buddies, “What do I need a job for? To pay taxes to Trump?” Not trusting the cops is an unspoken social code in this part of town, and when a kid is brought in for questioning he talks to the detective like someone who has grown up around countless other interrogation subjects. The scenes with Kevin and his friends at school are knowing and funny in the way they use bad language and talk like kids trying to be grown-ups. As the show progresses we can see how they have no choice. Waithe lets few people of the hook, and even those who would naturally survive in a feel good show might end up getting killed in this one.

But Waithe and her crew never take such moments, or the ones involving out of wedlock children, drug dealing, etc., and make them exploitative or cheap. Instead it’s all done with a real humanism, she wants us to get to know people, not stereotypes. Like the films of Spike Lee, this is a social document. Scenes that a lesser show would use for easy laughs are used here for a raw sting. In one scene Emmett is caught buying expensive shoes by his ex, who demands alimony for his son. The fight that erupts in the shoe store isn’t funny at all. It’s a raw statement on real attitudes and behaviors. Other characters also define themselves by what they wear, and what’s trendy. A kid tells a cop to dump his cheap shoes and get some Timberlands instead. In conditions where you have nothing, things begin to define your social worth.

What makes “The Chi” truly vibrant is its cast of characters. Because the show isn’t dependent on a grand plot, the personalities are engaging enough to keep us interested. Alex R. Hibbert’s Kevin is great as a young, strong personality dealing with the trials of childhood. Morohunfola is wonderfully tragic as Trice, a man who never got his act together but deep down is a good soul. Jacob Latimore’s Emmett should know better, but he doesn’t know how and has to learn the hard way. The stand out is Jason Mitchell as Brandon. Mitchell was fantastic in last year’s acclaimed “Mudbound,” and here he plays a role evoking those living among hard conditions but using their intelligence and talent to get ahead.

Shot with a gritty tone and a soundtrack featuring eclectic, driving songs, “The Chi” announces itself as a TV drama crafted as a snapshot of lives being lived, warts and all. There is humor, pain, hope and hopelessness. This gives it a resonance beyond the streets of Chicago, because the human condition is universal.

The series premiere of “The Chi” begins streaming Jan. 1 on Showtime.com. Season one premieres Jan. 7 on Showtime and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.