Perhaps one of the most anticipated new dramas to debut this month is helmed by powerhouse Lena Waithe's steady hand. The Showtime original series (casting: Carmen Cuba) The Chi premieres Jan. 7 and focuses on the lives of several young people living Chicago. It also already has social media abuzz, with good reason. Waithe herself is also from Chicago, giving her firsthand experience with these narratives. So, is Brandon from The Chi a real person?
While there's no indication that Waithe is detailing the lives of actual real people in this show, the stories of men like Brandon (played by Jason Mitchell)— who's looking to turn his passion for cooking into a career while also dealing with the street violence of his neighborhood — and the struggles they face are definitely rooted in reality. "My mission is to show these young black men are not born with a gun in their hand," Waithe, who earlier this year became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy series writing told The New York Times. "These are kids who come out with all the promise and hope that any other kid does."
It's no surprise that Waithe wants to buck stereotypes and offer nuanced interpretations of human experiences. The Master of None episode that scored her an Emmy — an episode in which she also starred — focused on her lesbian character dealing with her identity and familial expectations over the course of decades of Thanksgivings. She told Trevor Noah in an October appearance on The Daily Show that “people respond to the things about you that make you different," per The Los Angeles Times. "I wouldn’t be standing up there [with the Emmy] if I wasn’t a gay black woman,” she also told the host. "Because being a gay black woman is my story, and me telling that story is the thing that so many people related to."
A similar approach seems to be at play when it comes to The Chi. Waithe appears determined to tell stories that need to be told, and though The Chi focuses on a very specific place and very specific people, it's likely that the show will still appeal to a mass audience. As she said, viewers often simply crave a creator, actor or writer telling the story that's unique to them. “That really makes me happy," she said in the same LA Times interview. "That a queer brown girl’s story could make people go, 'Oh, I see myself in that.' That's when art is doing its job."
"I wanted to humanize them and show that their lives are valid," Waithe said in The New York Times interview referenced earlier. "But I don't paint us in a perfect light at all. My hope is that I can show us in an honest way. That's it. Not bad. Not perfect. Just accurate."
Jason Mitchell, who plays Brandon, said in a behind-the-scenes video for Showtime that he sees a lot of himself within his character, likely making for an even more authentic performance. "The character Brandon is a lot like who I am in real life," Mitchell said. "In my life, I have friends ... that have been murdered. As guys, we hold it but we try not to let it affect us. Brandon has to be smart to just be successful. He can't just let his feelings overwhelm him. This is the circle of life in Chicago."
Showtime made the premiere of The Chi available early, showing a lot of confidence in the series. And it's certainly in capable hands with Waithe at the reins. Though she and Mitchell aren't building upon a real-life person to create Brandon's character, that just gives them more freedom to cultivate the story they're after.