Having lived in Chicago, I know the names of some of that city’s most notorious south side neighborhoods—those parts of the city that lead and bleed on the nightly news. So while binge-watching season one of The Chi (Showtime) in advance of the season two debut on Sunday, April 7, I braced for the stock situations found in inner city dramas: crooked cops, infighting amongst gangs, murders, and revenge. I’ve seen that story a hundred times.
But while those elements are present in The Chi, they are not the focus. Instead, the show’s Emmy-award-winning creator, Lena Waithe, approaches her childhood hometown with more nuance than the standard formulaic approach.
The show celebrates hardworking people laboring as restaurateurs, nurses, entrepreneurs, teachers, postal workers, military vets, and realtors, while revealing how gangs and American industry are choking the American dream out of this south side neighborhood.
This is readily apparent in the story of Brandon (Jason Mitchell), who works in the kitchen of a Michelin star restaurant. He longs to become a chef who owns a high-end establishment. Nothing can stop him from pursuing this dream: not his brother’s funeral on the day of his line audition; not his mother’s going-away party on the night of a big break catering for the restaurant; not even the territorialism of food truck vendors when he strikes out on his own.
Brandon is constantly striving for the brass ring, struggling within a system that is not designed to include him or his American Dream. As the only black line cook at the prestigious Trestle and Crane, Brandon knows he will need to work harder than everyone else. Competition is fierce. When faced with a decision of loyalty to a friend versus the restaurant, Brandon negotiates a resolution that allows him to remain loyal to both. The chef refuses this solution and Brandon discovers he is replaceable and dispensable. In order to make it, he will need to fight that much harder.
This fictional situation is all too real. A 2012 report by the Chicago Tribune found that while 90 percent of students studying culinary arts in prestigious Chicago cooking schools were black, 60 percent of head chefs were white and only 9 percent are black. African American chefs, despite equal training, are drastically underrepresented in high end kitchens. To date, there are only three black chefs worldwide to have received a Michelin star: two in the United Kingdom and one in France.
In the first episode of the new season, this point is driven home when Brandon shares his frustration with his girl friend, Jerrika (Tiffany Boone).
Brandon: “I’m tired of working for white people.”
Jerrika: “You know there are black-owned restaurants in Chicago.”
Brandon: “How many of them got Michelin stars?”
Brandon’s dream is to run the show, not to be run by it. He is not alone. The drug dealers, too, talk about their childhood dreams in The Chi. One wanted to be an astronaut, another a cobbler. But what happens when the climb to the top is thwarted by racism?
In The Chi, we learn how similar gangs are to the business of American capitalism. Here, too, it is a well-grounded insight. Research has shown that well-run gangs engage similar tactics to those used in American business. And American businesses, such as the famously corrupt Enron, provide examples of how capitalism engenders a culture of cheating and illegality from the top on down. In response, Master of Business Administration programs have begun offering ethics classes.
People turn to the underground economy to gain a foothold when edged out of legitimate opportunity structures. And while we often excuse white-collar crime and vilify street crime, The Chi shows how both exact their toll. Hard working-people like Brandon become victims to both forms of crime.
In the gangs, as in business, there are bosses who call the shots, competition between members for elevation within the organization and between rival gangs over turf and customers, and merchandise that must be sold for profit. If the profit is not made, the gang fails and someone must pay the price.
Take the story of aging gangster Quentin (Steven Williams), known as “Q,” and his restaurant-owning brother, Sonny (Cedric Young). Sonny’s restaurant is nestled within the heart of the neighborhood where he both employs, and looks out for, the residents. He believes in the American Dream as set forth by their father, who worked for twenty-three years as a railway porter to help raise the family out of poverty and into the middle class.
Q sees his brother’s path as futile, recalling that after their father died, twenty-three years of service garnered the family nothing more than $500 and his father’s porter whistle as compensation. For Q, this is emblematic of the barrier racism presents for black success in a capitalist system.
And so Q uses the same dedication to hard work demonstrated by his father to start a gang which both borrows from, and circumvents, an unfair system. While Q respects Sonny, he sees his brother as doing nothing more than hustling in a system designed for his failure. “I don’t hussle,” he says. “I run shit.”
Waithe told The New York Times last year that her intent was to present a reality not often seen in dramas about neighborhoods like the one she lived in until her mother moved the family north to Evanston. “My mission is to show these young black men are not born with a gun in their hand,” she said. “These are kids who come out with all the promise and hope that any other kid does.”
It is this critical analysis that makes The Chi unique and important when telling the stories of those living in the city’s notoriously dangerous neighborhoods. The root cause of the violence and injustice is economic, and it stems from a duality we often overlook.