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July 31, 2018

Tapping the Source

Shows like The Chi “come from something in our soul,” says creator–executive producer Lena Waithe. “You got to go to the source.”

Eric Deggans
  • Lena Waithe

    Showtime
  • Showtime
  • Executive producer Common also  appears as Rafiq, a local iman.  

    Showtime
  • Alex Hibbert, as Kevin, and Jason Mitchell, as Brandon, intersect on the South Side.

    Showtime
  • The middle-schoolers of The Chi — Michael Epps as Jake, Shamon Brown as Papa, and Hibbert — with Barton Fitzpatrick as Reg, a lieutenant in a local gun ring

    Showtime

Want to get Lena Waithe going?

Ask her if the current spate of ultra-successful TV and film projects featuring black people and black culture and created by black people — Oscar-winning films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out and widely touted television fare like Issa Rae’s HBO comedy, Insecure, or Justin Simien’s Netflix show, Dear White People — is just a flash in the pan.

She knows it’s happened before. Back in the early ’90s, black directors such as Spike Lee, John Singleton and Mario Van Peebles appeared to be kicking open doors in the film world. At the same time, black-centered programs like The Cosby Show, A Different World and In Living Color looked to be doing the same thing on television.

Waithe has her own place in today’s renaissance for creators of color, having made history as the first black woman to win an Emmy Award for comedy writing; she coauthored the “Thanksgiving” episode of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series, Master of None.

Earlier this year, TBS picked up a script she first wrote nine years ago; called Twenties, it’s about the adventures of a queer black woman and her two friends.

And then there’s The Chi. Waithe’s ode to Chicago’s South Side — a dramatic rendering of her hometown that was inspired by James Baldwin and Langston Hughes — has taken off at Showtime, buoyed by standout performances by some of Hollywood’s hottest black actors, including Alex Hibbert (Moonlight, Black Panther) and Jason Mitchell (Mudbound, Straight Outta Compton).

Waithe wrote the pilot and cowrote two other episodes, crafting the show’s voice as an executive producer.

“I wanted to write something that was about the poetry and dignity of life,” she says, noting that Showtime bought the script before her success with Master of None. Showtime picked up The Chi for a second season weeks after its premiere, pointing out that the series increased its audience every week in January after delivering the premium  cable channel’s best series-premiere ratings since 2016.

The one thing that could sink this trend of successful black-centered stories, Waithe observes, is a rise of bad imitations. “Obviously, we’re in a business of copycats, so when something like [Fox’s] Empire hits, [executives] can say, ‘Oh, we can recreate that…. We can get some music and some black people, make it flashy, add a little camp and soap, and voilà ! We’ll have our new Empire!’”

However, in today’s environment — where quality and authenticity are prized above all — black-centered films and TV shows are not so easy to knock off, she maintains.

“You can’t recreate Get Out; you can’t copycat Dear White People,” Waithe says. “Because these shows and movies come from something in our soul that needed to get out. It’s not easy for an exec to say, ‘We need our black psychological thriller with a new take on the horror genre.’ You got to go to the source.”

And when that happens, Waithe says, she’s just as willing to pitch another writer or director of color to those executives — with herself attached as an executive producer, of course.

“That’s what the industry ain’t ready for,” she says, laughing. “Because when they come to us and say, ‘What’s the next project?’ And they think we’re going to say, ‘Oh, I’ve got this movie in my back pocket,’ but we’re saying, ‘Yo, meet Cathy Kisakye, who is a writer on The Chi and who has a phenomenal pilot. Let’s get this made.’”

It’s about us passing the baton to those next to us… and saying, ‘I’m going to build an empire that includes myself and so many others.’”

Remind her that Hollywood often seems to operate in the opposite fashion, and Waithe laughs again. “That’s why this wave is not just a moment in time,” she says. “I think this generation says, ‘When one of us goes [on to big success], we’re all going. Together.’ ”

The Chi is certainly the type of ambitious, groundbreaking project that opens doors in show business.

Early episodes unfolded slowly, introducing viewers to a vision of Chicago’s South Side they may not have seen before.

One character, the charismatic, breezily eccentric, 16-year-old Coogie (Jahking Guillory), rides through the neighborhood on his bike. He passes mural-covered walls, haggles with the owner of a convenience store and pretends to race a brother perched on a motorcycle like a black Hell’s Angel.

The story takes a turn when Coogie stumbles upon the body of a local basketball hero, shot to death outside the neighborhood gang’s drug stash house. Before long, Coogie is dead, too, killed by someone who assumed he was involved with the other boy’s death.

It’s a unique set of murders, which turns The Chi into an urban drama with a mystery baked inside. But what attracted executive producer Common to the project was its depiction of people in the South Side — ranging from older men killing time drinking on the stoops of their homes to kids trying to avoid drug-slinging gangsters on their way to school.

Common says he got a look at Waithe’s pilot script back when it was a buzzed-about project called Chiraq. (Spike Lee would eventually nab that title for his 2015 movie, requiring a name change for Waithe’s show.) He knew this story about his hometown was something special.

“It captured, to me, the joy of us… the everyday blue collar-ness,” says  Common, who grew up in the South Side neighborhood known as Calumet Heights. “Being caught up in an environment that’s dealing with poverty and a lack of opportunity. It captured so many things I knew to be authentic to Chicago. It was a very fresh voice.”

Though he first made his name in show business as a rapper, Common has expanded his reach, appearing as an actor in such films as Selma and John Wick: Chapter 2 and creating a production company, Freedom Road Productions. He’s the first rapper to have won an Emmy (for “Letter to the Free,” a song in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix film, 13TH), an Oscar and a Golden Globe (both for “Glory,” a song in DuVernay’s film Selma), plus three Grammys.

For The Chi, Common saw his job as helping Waithe maintain and upgrade the story’s authenticity while connecting the production to anyone in Chicago who could assist. He developed a crew of young “consultants” from South Side neighborhoods who helped ensure the language and dress of the characters made sense.

Most of all, Common wanted The Chi to flesh out people too often seen in the rest of America as fleeting images in crime stories. The goal was to humanize folks beyond the cautionary tales or crime statistics that usually accompany shows about Chicago’s South Side.

“I thought we owed it to our people to give them something that’s now — Chicago right now,” he adds. “People can look at it and say, ‘I see myself on that screen,’ or they see somebody they know and feel like they’re being heard in these stories.”

It almost didn’t work out. Showtime made an initial pilot of The Chi, which Common says “didn’t carry the energy of Lena’s vision.” Waithe says the original group of people who helped her craft the pilot didn’t understand what she was aiming for, artistically.

So the production team regrouped, recruiting director Rick Famuyiwa (Dope) to handle the recrafted pilot and serve as an executive producer. Roles were recast, and actors like Mitchell, Hibbert and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine came aboard.

“We were all working in what I want to call ‘Black Excellence,’” says Mitchell, who had vowed to work with Waithe after first meeting her, a year and a half before The Chi came around.

“Black people have this stigma that we’re sort of irresponsible or something,” he adds. “So, to be telling a story that tells the lives that we live and where we really come from… and to do that in excellent fashion? It feels really, really good to be a part of something like that.”

Mitchell is a hot commodity in Hollywood, fresh off attention-getting turns playing Eric “Eazy-E” Wright in Straight Outta Compton and a World War II veteran returning to the Mississippi Delta in Mudbound. At one press conference, Waithe called Mitchell the “black Tom Hanks” because of his popularity and versatility.

Though a TV role might seem like an odd next choice, Mitchell — who grew up in a poor New Orleans neighborhood nicknamed Hollygrove — saw the character of Brandon, Coogie’s brother, as a perfect fit.

When viewers meet Brandon, he’s working as a sous chef in an up-and-coming restaurant, saving to start his own place and trying to find a way out of the neighborhood that doesn’t involve drugs or gangs. But when Coogie is killed, Brandon is urged to handle his business, find out who did the deed and put them down.

It’s a code of the streets Mitchell calls the “domino rally effect,” after the game in which players arrange dominoes on a track to create patterns as they tumble into each other.

“I know these two guys from different wards in New Orleans — one dude stole another dude’s go-kart, and the first dude killed him,” the actor says. “Then it’s, ‘Oh, this person killed my brother, and that person killed my uncle.’ It never stops. You think of all these people who lost their lives over a go-kart — are you kidding me?”

Like Brandon, Mitchell worked in a restaurant while planning his escape from his neighborhood. And, like his character, Mitchell found the streets reaching back to pull him in, as when longtime friend and emerging rapper BTY Young’N was shot to death last year in Hollygrove.

“Brandon and me are the same dude — but Chicago’s different,” Mitchell says. “The Chi is the most segregated city that I’ve ever been to. And random people aren’t getting robbed or killed on the street in New Orleans. We need the tourists to come. We can’t [afford to] scare anybody away from the city.”

Mwine plays Ronnie, who helped raise the young athlete whose shooting death sets everything in motion. An actor, director and activist with 30 years of experience performing, Mwine says his character’s story reveals how an emotional reaction — plus easy access to guns — can lead to tragedy.

“We’ve seen an incredible emasculation of the black male in America, and the only way to man up is ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles’ — literally take up arms,” he says, quoting Hamlet. “In that neighborhood, it’s seen as cowardly to report a crime or try to seek justice through legal means. Street justice is what earns people their cred.”

The Chi also features storylines focused on a group of middle-school students, led by Moonlight costar Alex Hibbert as Kevin, who sees how Coogie is killed. One of the pleasures of the series is watching three generations of talented black performers — from experienced hands like Mwine and The Wire alum Sonja Sohn, to up-and-comers like Mitchell and precocious talents such as Hibbert.

“These kids, they steal every scene,” Mwine says, laughing. “The other day, I realized this is my first lead role in a TV series — I’ve been playing recurring characters on TV shows for more than 10 years. So, in a way, it’s been a first for all of us.”

The evolution of The Chi continues behind the scenes. In January, while announcing the show’s second-season pickup, Showtime also revealed that showrunner Elwood Reid (The Bridge) would be leaving, to be replaced by Ayanna Floyd Davis (Empire, Hannibal).

Waithe credits Reid for “making sure the trains ran on time” as the production was working out its first-season kinks. But for the second season, she decided to bring in Davis, a black woman who had cowritten the show’s third episode, to serve as executive producer and showrunner.

“It was about Lena seeing what she wanted for the second season and how we could grow,” Common says. “We always want to get the best version of the show. We’re always asking: How can it get better? And who is going to be the best person to get us there?”


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018

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