Johanna Schneller: Lena Waithe authentically brings to life Chicago's South Side
Emmy award-winning writer from Master of None shows the community trauma felt from the murder of a teenager in vivid detail.
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The Show: The Chi, Season 1, Episode 1 (CraveTV)
The Moment: The morgue
With a heavy heart, Ronnie (Ntare Mwine) approaches the round window in the morgue door. He peers through. A young African-American man, a teenager, lies on the slab. Ronnie closes his eyes. It’s his son.
Ronnie’s ex, Jada (Yolonda Ross), the boy’s mother, sits in a corner, weeping. “My baby, my baby,” she keens. When she sees Ronnie, she rises, comes at him. “I want to know who did this to my boy,” she wails. “They took my baby. Why?”
Throughout, the camera keeps finding the boy’s face; every time we see it, he looks younger. You may have seen scenes like this in other cop shows, but writer Lena Waithe and director Rick Famuwiya, who are both Black, keep you in this room, with this boy, long enough that you begin to imagine the many times in African-American communities these scenes play out for real.
Waithe, who won an Emmy for the Thanksgiving episode of Master of None, wrote all 10 episodes of The Chi, which delves into the lives of myriad characters living on Chicago’s South Side. She proves what Hollywood is finally waking up to: Giving non-traditional voices a platform results in stories we’ve rarely heard, from perspectives we’ve rarely seen.
Her characters are fully alive, from corner boys to school kids and broken mothers to striving sons. So it’s doubly tragic when some lives end, abruptly, because a community that’s been denied justice has adopted a habit of revenge. Waithe show us how one death ripples out to ruin many lives, and how the repetition of that despair brings down even people determined to resist it.
Johanna Schneller is a media connoisseur who zeroes in on pop-culture moments.
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