by Jasmine Sanders | via Vulture
The pilot episode of The Chi features a plethora of moments where the jubilance, or at least serenity, of its characters, is interrupted by violence and death. A golden-colored boy with a wild mane of hair discovers a dead body while riding his bike through a neighborhood alley. Another boy, even younger, witnesses another murder, with the culprit looking into his eyes for one brief, but chilling moment as he retreats. The message is clear: The Chi aims to highlight the way that tragedy is never far away for the black and poor denizens of Chicago’s South Side, and also how a neighborhood can harbor the constant presence of both promise and loss.
The series begins with a boy named Coogie (Jahking Guillory), riding his bike through what is intended to be 79th Street, his home. Coogie witnesses a dead body being dumped, and rids the corpse of its jewelry and shoes. He’s quickly and gruffly apprehended by the police, including Armando Riesco’s squarely good cop Detective Cruz. Meanwhile, Coogie’s older brother Brandon (Jason Mitchell of Straight Outta Compton and Mudbound) has dreams of ascending the ranks of the swanky West Loop eatery where he cooks. We soon meet a raspy-voiced old-timer called Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) who was a father figure to the murdered boy, and the boy’s weeping mother demands that he seek retribution her son’s death. He murders Coogie outside of the neighborhood corner store, and the crime is witnessed by Kevin (Alex Hibbert), a younger boy who relays the information back to Brandon. The episode ends as an embattled Brandon considers whether he should avenge his own brother’s death.
That the Sears Tower makes an appearance in the opening montage is a gaffe that’s easily forgotten, but it does hint at the geographic incongruities that are peppered throughout the episode. (Imagine a show set in, say, the Bronx, which included a sun-soaked World Trade Center glistening in the background.) Episode director Rick Famuyiwa is fond of frequent shots of the city’s passing trains, and the constant presence of the Pink Line signage has the unintended effect of highlighting the fact that the show is supposedly set on the South Side but was primarily filmed on the West Side.
Thankfully, those small distractions are swept aside whenever the episode allows its characters, especially the younger ones, helmed by Moonlight’s Alex Hibbert, to just be. In those relaxed moments, series creator Lena Waithe exhibits a penchant for capturing the elliptical, alluring rhythms of black regional speech, much like her mentor Gina Prince Bythewood. This talent is most evident in Hibbert’s Kevin, the helm of a potty-mouthed troupe of roving preteens, and the unabashed star of the pilot. Hibbert retains much of the pensiveness he embodied in Moonlight, with a veneer of endearingly boyish brassiness carting him through the boilerplate happenings of school-age children. He roasts his friends in the cafeteria; he harbors a crush, then auditions for a play to impress her; he curses and bribes Brandon when the man shows up at his front door, inquiring about Coogie’s murder.
But the pilot takes an abrupt and jarring nosedive when it turns to its female characters. Brandon and Coogie’s mother, Laverne (Sonja Sohn), feels like a walking, talking embodiment of stereotypical black female pathology. Laverne berates both of her sons, belittling Brandon’s dreams and insulting his girlfriend in their home. With a cigarette in hand, her hair wrapped in a scarf, and an eagerness to sling insults, it’s easy to miss the softness in those half-moon eyes, the loss she had to have encountered as a woman living in this cold city. Perhaps we’ll see more of that softness in future episodes. But for now, this is a character of such staunch, ceaseless dysfunction that she verbally abuses her living son at the funeral for her dead one. I anticipate the revelation of a history of addiction as the series progresses.
Click HERE to read the rest of the recap, “Pilot (S1 E1)”