How Lena’s Waithe’s Youth Inspired This Heartbreaking Drama

Matt Dinerstein/SHOWTIME

After an historic Emmy win in 2017, Lena Waithe is introducing viewers to her version of Chicago in Showtime’s new drama series The Chi debuting on Jan. 7 (set decoration: Lisa Wolff). The coming-of-age series revolves around a group of people living on the South Side of Chicago, whose lives become linked by coincidence and violence. Is The Chi based on a true story? In order to make the series as authentic as possible, Waithe pulled from her own experiences growing up in that setting.

Unfortunately, for some, just hearing the word "Chicago" conjures up images of violent, crime-ridden streets, families in poverty, and black children who run through the streets terrorizing residents. In an effort to combat this stereotypical view of the Windy City, Waithe created The Chi. According to an interview the writer and actor gave to The New York Times,

“My mission is to show these young black men are not born with a gun in their hand. These are kids who come out with all the promise and hope that any other kid does. I wanted to humanize them and show that their lives are valid. 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.”
Parrish Lewis/SHOWTIME

Set in her hometown, Waithe was firm on her decision to make The Chi as genuine and accurate as possible. To do this Waithe made sure that authentic Chicago experience was all over the series, from who was on the crew to even the artists on the soundtrack, according to the same New York Times article. Aiding her in this mission was fellow Chicago native, rapper-turned-actor Common, who serves as an executive producer and one of the characters on the series.

"In black life, in the cities, there's a lot of joy, there's a lot of creativity, there's a lot of spirit and compassion. Even in the environment of where there is violence, and there is poverty, and there is despair, it's still like a beautiful gem of joy and good people," Common said in an interview The Hollywood Reporter. "I want [the audience] to take away that we all are human beings, and this black life being depicted in Chicago is also a reflection of them and reflection of America, and I hope that they connect with the stories."

Another The Chi star with an emotional connection to the show is actor Jason Mitchell. In the series Mitchell plays Brandon, an up-and-coming chef “who dreams of opening a restaurant, but is conflicted between the promise of a new life and his responsibility to his mother and teenage brother on the South Side,” according to The Chicago Tribune. Mitchell, who's from New Orleans, dealt with that city's brand of crime and violence in his own youth.

Matt Dinerstein/SHOWTIME

"You know, [The Chi is] very important to me because my first week in Chicago, I saw an interactive billboard that said 46 people had been shot that weekend. And to think about 46 people being killed, 46 families that were affected, it doesn't even make the news," he told THR. "It's something that I think, as a people, we have to learn how to get over it, but at the same time, we have to learn how to help each other. If we don't know how to address the problem, then we can't help each other."

While the characters on The Chi are ultimately fictional, it's clear that the emotions behind these stories of friendship, family, heartache and hope are very much real.

Editor's note: After publication, we discovered this article did not meet our editorial standards: There were portions that did not correctly attribute another source. It has been updated to meet our standards.