March 20, 2018, 18:32

Is Lena Waithe’s “The Chi” Burdened by Its Politics? |

Is Lena Waithe’s “The Chi” Burdened by Its Politics? |

Last year, Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win an Emmy for
comedy screenwriting, for the “Thanksgiving” episode of Aziz Ansari’s
comedy series “Master of None.” In the episode, which she wrote and
starred in, her character, Denise, evolves from a mellow child into a
self-realized, gay adult over the course of five Thanksgivings. The
episode has the composure, and the sharply observed details, of a short
film: we watch as the Afro puffs of the young Denise morph into the
straight-back cornrows of the teen-age Denise; as the posters of Lisa
Bonet and Jennifer Aniston turn from objects of aspiration into objects
of lust. The coming-of-age story technically qualifies as “woke,”
satisfying a contemporary thirst for making visible the inner lives of
marginalized people. The beauty of “Thanksgiving,” however, comes from
its aesthetic conviction—its careful accumulation of psychological
depth, the way it makes the passage of two decades feel like one
contiguous scene.

Watching the first four episodes of “The Chi,” Waithe’s new Showtime
series, I wished the writers had found a comparable structuring
device—one that would have harnessed the show’s ambitiously coiled plot
and set a pace that would accommodate revealing portraiture. The show
centers on black, middle-class-ish men and women, boys and girls, living
on the South Side of Chicago, a place frequently maligned—by the
President and others—as a “war
zone.” (The
Senate hopeful “Sheriff” Joe Arpaio, of Arizona, recently cited Chicago
as evidence for why Dreamers should be
deported.) From the pilot, directed by Rick Famuyiwa, of the indie film “Dope,”
Waithe’s affectionately named series portrays a much different place. In
the opening sequence, a sixteen-year-old cyclist named Coogie (Jahking
Guillory), with a head of juicy curls and a wacky wardrobe, takes in his
confectionary-colored surroundings: Obama graffiti, rug rats doing
gymnastics on an abandoned mattress, and a hulking motorcyclist. Coogie
haggles the Arab-American proprietors of the corner 77th Mart to sell
him grape pop and jerky at a discount; he feeds the jerky to a pit-bull
friend through the diamonds of a chain-link fence.

The reverie doesn’t last long. It is while Coogie is kneeling to feed
the dog that we hear the first gunshots of the series—explosions that
set into motion a cycle of street justice that yanks everyone into its
orbit. Coogie is the first to be implicated after he scavenges a
necklace and sneakers from the dead stranger’s body. He is arrested by
Detective Rick Cruz (Armando Riesco), who is, a little improbably, moved
by his intelligence and lets him off the hook. Soon after, Coogie
attracts the attention of the dead man’s father figure, Ronnie, played
by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (of HBO’s “Treme”). Before long, Coogie’s
brother Brandon, played by Jason Mitchell (“Mudbound”), who has retired
his “Straight Outta Compton” Jheri curl and is now an aspiring chef with
a Caesar cut, also gets drawn into the mess—as does Kevin Williams, a
middle-schooler played by Alex Hibbert, of “Moonlight.” In Barry
Jenkins’s film, the eerily serene young actor was often awash in dreamy
blues; in Chicago, black boys like Hibbert, fearful and feared, glow

All this is packed into the show’s first fifty-seven minutes, and the
pace only quickens after that. Just as the first episode kills off a
promising character as soon as it has introduced him, so do the first
four episodes of the series spill over with the kind of ricocheting plot
that seems designed to call attention to its own complexity. By the
third episode, which airs tonight, three men have already been shot.
Brandon and Kevin, now de-facto brothers, are both present at the third
shooting, and there’s some thrilling ambiguity as to who pulled the
trigger. But the series hurries the aftermath, solving the mystery too
quickly. All this plot leaves characters with so little downtime that
they can only appear skeletally sketched: the ambitious line cook trying
to busy himself out of danger; the drunk with a compromised moral
compass; the sneakerhead Lothario who ominously shares a name, Emmett,
with Chicago’s most famous murdered son; the cop with a conscience.
Women in “The Chi” are dignified foils: Ethel (LaDonna Tittle), a
prickly grandmother, is so weak from diabetes that she can barely get
out of bed, but when Detective Cruz barges into her home, looking for
her grandson, she turns into the matriarch of a moralizing Tyler Perry
production and subdues the strapping cop with an old-school rifle.

Promoting “The Chi,” Waithe
told the Times of her Chicagoan subjects, “I wanted to humanize them and
show that their lives are valid. Not bad. Not perfect. Just accurate.”
Waithe’s hope fits into the tacit expectation that it is now the
province of artists to correct the images of people who have been
rendered in the common American imagination as flat and uncomplicated.
But the show’s ambitions to provide a counter to the image of black men
as irrationally violent—to show instead their contradictions and
fluctuating intentions; to give us sex, quietude, and
surprise—paradoxically yoke the script to the myth from which it is
trying to escape. In the world of “The Chi,” scenes of carefree play
tighten tediously into fugues of desperation and rage. This rhythm is so
inevitable that, in the second episode, as soon as we see Ronnie
jaunting down the street at night, carrying a bottle of Pinot Noir and a
cut of steak, we immediately know that he will abandon his date to
commit a stupid act of retribution.

“The Chi” occasionally nods to “The Wire,” and the canon of prestige
metropolitan dramas that show spawned, but its true antecedents are
hyper-plotted serials like the Starz show “Power,” in which the
associates of a harried kingpin wage a war against him, and Showtime’s
other South Side tale, “Shameless,” in which the children of the lawless
Gallagher family are forced to grow up too quickly. There is a
kitchen-sink sampling of other genres in “The Chi,” too—the earnest
police drama, the listless comedy, the self-conscious soap; it’s up to
the show’s suite of excellent actors to wrangle the tonal jerkiness.
“The Chi” feels most at ease when Waithe, who has a knack for deadpan as
an actor, treats her characters with anthropological curiosity rather
than with reverence; in Episode 4, “Quaking Grass,” the dialogue between
the young Kevin and his friends at a tame after-school party nails the
gawky affectations of young adolescents attempting to pass as adult men.
The middle-school story line is confident in its looser groove, released
from the whiplash tragedy of the series. “I’m gonna shake this lame-ass
shit up,” Papa, Kevin’s hammy sidekick, stage-whispers to his friends.
He cranks the music, then gets the awkward crowd to dance.


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