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The Chi - Pilot - Review

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Series Premiere - Sunday, January 7, 2018 at 10 PM ET/PT

I have been a huge fan of Lena Waithe since I saw her on the first season of Master of None, imagine my excitement when I found out about “The Chi” being picked up to series by Showtime. The story is about a group of young men growing up on the south side of Chicago. I was not anticipating an early release for the pilot so finding out this morning about the first episode being available was a great Christmas treat.

The episode opens with beautiful shots of the streets showcasing all the brilliant street art all over the south side of Chicago. I applaud the director for giving us this feeling of calmness before taking us on a roller coaster ride, and he does this throughout the episode. Rick Fumuyiwa is known for these sorts of angles that put you at ease in one scene, then on edge in the next. It’s a wavy (for the lack of a better word) ride through the episode.

There are several characters we meet in this episode who live on the south side but do not know each other; however, there is some sense of familiarity that the filming has set up for the viewer.

Coogie is a sixteen-year-old teenager riding his bike and living his life without much care of the world’s problems. In a conversation with Habib (owner of 77th mart) and his son, he persuades them into selling him beef Jerky at a discount, and we discover it’s for a stray dog that he takes care of. The 77th Mart is an integral part of the story as the episode continues. Jason is the second character we meet (we don’t know his name) through Coogie; he, is shot on the streets and Coogie runs to the spot where he is. We get a shot of Jason’s shoes and a necklace he is wearing, but police sirens and a lookout scare Coogie away. Some people on the street are trying to walk away when the police arrive because they know that they can be swept up without questioning. This scene was hard to watch, it was subtle but showed how fearful many of the residents were of the police.

We get a brief introduction to Brandon’s (Coogie’s half-brother) world in a restaurant kitchen where he is a chef in training, with ambitions to open his restaurant one day. Here the viewer still doesn’t know the connection between Brandon and Coogie. This scene gives the viewer a contrast of Coogie’s carefree spirit and Brandon’s somewhat structured life that he is trying to curve for himself. We also meet Sarah, the restaurant Manager who seems to like Brandon.

We meet Kevin and his sister Keisha on the streets as she walks him to school. The background here is gorgeous shots of street art and brings you joy. The director’s choice to film this way was brilliant because it tells a beautiful story of the city, but at the same time elicits anxiety. Keisha loves her brother, and they have this cute exchange, and she wipes dirt off his shoes. Kevin’s friends Papa and Jake join him on the way to school and through their conversation we learn about the girl that he likes in his class.
We meet Emmett who is Keisha’s boyfriend, has two children and lives with his mother Jada. I am not sure of Keisha’s age, but she seemed quite young to be in a relationship; on the other hand, this is the real life they are trying to portray. They are about to have a romantic moment, but his mother interrupts them. Kevin also has a child that he claimed wasn’t his but a paternity test confirms it. The baby’s’ mother brings him to his house and abandons him on the doorstep. His mother is trying to push him to grow up and take care of his responsibilities. I was grateful for the quick resolution on this issue, I did not want a clich├ęd drag through the season about something that was easy to figure out.

Fifteen minutes into the episode the only significant thing that happened was the shooting and the brief view of Coogie sitting in the cop’s car. In comes Ronnie and his friends Curtis and Barry sitting outside his house engaging in small talk. What was profound about the writing here was the chat about the juice that (Ronnie) was drinking to help him get in shape and be able to fight the “powers.” Barry reminds him that the juice he was about to drink had a lot of sugar which could kill him as well, so he was in a losing “battle” either way. They filmed this episode months ago, but it was still very uncomfortable to watch these men catcall a woman who was walking down the street. We start learning a little bit about Ronnie when they talk about his ex-Tracy and her son that he loved even though everyone knew he was not biologically his.This conversation is essential since it helps connect the story for the viewer when detective Cruz arrives to pick him up.He tells him about Jason and that he needs to drive him to the coroner. Tracy is also viewing her son when Ronnie walks in. Tai'isha Davis’s acting in this scene was outstanding, she wailed and mourned for her son, and it was real and raw. We briefly see Coogie again in the interrogation room.

Brandon’s girlfriend Jerrika picks him up from work, and they head home where his Mother was waiting for him. We find out here the relation with Coogie who she wants to see at the police station. She’s not very fond of Jerrika, and there was some foreshadowing in this interaction of where that relationship could end up. At the station detective, Cruz begins to question Coogie who tries to distract him with talk about his shoes. Coogie is street smart and has had a few run-ins with cops because of shoplifting. He insists he did not kill Jason and did not know anything about the shoes and necklace.
What was puzzling to me about this was how this sixteen-year-old boy was questioned without representation. The writer could have chosen to go a different direction but decided to be faithful to what happens in many juvenile arrest cases. The other detective watching the interrogation did not believe Coogie, but Cruz shut him down quickly.There is a short scene of Jason’s wake that shows Tracy in the chapel getting hugs and Ronnie walking in and sitting outside. The camera moves here with mid-shots and close-ups, there is no dialogue so we get to experience their agony visually. We see how Ronnie is affected and how he still wants to be with Tracy especially in this dark moment.

Brandon and his mother arrive at the station to bail out Coogie who is still exhibiting un-seriousness. His mother is upset and takes the fight out to the parking lot. Brandon gets the detectives card after confidently asserting that his brother did not commit the crime. He decides to bring Coogie to live with him for a little while against his mother’s wishes. Hands Coogie a key to the house and heads to work. His little brother goes to the spot where he hid the shoes. I was surprised by this because there was no indication that he stole the items. My initial feeling was that he was going back to look for the dog. He sells Emmett the sneakers, but Jason’s lookout from the beginning of the episode sees him. We are taken back to Tracy’s apartment and she is having a breakdown because of her son’s death. She is understandably an emotional wreck and wants to find out who killed her son. Ronnie is obviously uncomfortable and is trying to stay out of trouble, but he is still in love with her and wants to be with her. The situation is complicated but it is clear Ronnie knows the domino effect of such a venture. He does find out from Curtis that someone witnessed something around that corner and they point to Coogie who he locates and follows to 77th Mart.

Kevin is in school and goes to audition for the school play because of a girl who we met earlier that is on the play. He finds out that his friend Jake had gone in on the girl already and this upsets him. He confronts his friend, and while they are walking home, they come across the argument between Ronnie and Coogie. A gun goes off and Coogie falls to the ground, this is where all the connections start coming together. Ronnie runs but bumps into Kevin who was hiding, and they face each other. A non-verbal communication occurs, and they both know to go their way, and no one would get killed. I watched this scene several times, and my opinion is that Ronnie did not mean to kill Coogie, however his own “son,” was dead and someone identified the boy with the Afro. He is devastated at what just occurred but his thoughts were with Tracy, and that’s where he headed to give her the necklace.

Coogie’s funeral service was sad and heartbreaking especially the eulogy that Brandon gave. Jason Mitchell dug deep in this scene and gave an excellent performance. He took us on an emotional journey through Coogie’s young life. We didn’t get to know much about him, but this monologue let us in and showed us he was just a boy who was trying to live his life. I loved the distinction that Brandon made about their brotherhood; there was nothing half about it. Their mother was also having a hard time, and she blamed Brandon for not protecting her son. Brandon jumps back into work to avoid dealing with his emotions but when he visits the 77th Mart to get Coogie's bike he meets Emmett who tells him that Keisha’s brother witnessed the shooting.

Kevin is a smart kid and knows the streets very well, despite his young age he has mastered the art of living in a place where has to protect himself. He negotiates to get Coogie’s bike and forty-two dollars in exchange for the information. There is a heartwarming scene where they walk together a guarded Brandon opens up and tells him his name. The episode ends on this walk when he sees Ronnie, before he can answer Kevin’s question about what he was going to do, a text from Sarah (Restaurant Manager) about the chef job offer comes in.

Lena’s writing in this episode set up the viewer to do some work to learn who these characters were. She didn’t outrightly give the relations; she linked the dots in a way that required the viewer to pay attention. It was evident that she took a lot of care with how she portrayed each character and their depth. Going into the next episode viewers will be able to identify with the characters they met in the first episode and relate to them. My hope is to see how they all deal with this trauma that has now connected all of them. I enjoyed this episode, but I felt a little robbed by Coogie’s death the same way I feel when young black men are killed aimlessly. It was painful to watch him laying in the casket and maybe in my selfish way I was hoping that we would get to know more about him. I didn’t know what to expect before I started watching, but I know for sure I did not expect any death to occur this early in the season, so that kind of dampened my spirits for the day.


If you haven’t watched the episode it’s available on YouTube for free, If you have seen it tell me your thoughts in the comments.

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