Lena Waithe Talks Portraying Chicago's "Complexities" on 'The Chi'

"It's not a city full of saints or sinners. It's a mix of both," Waithe told THR at the Showtime drama's premiere in downtown Los Angeles.
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Lena Waithe

"Lena's having her moment," Showtime boss David Nevins told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet at the premiere for The Chi, Lena Waithe's new drama about the South Side of Chicago.

"I knew when I was watching football this weekend and I saw a 90-second Google commercial that Lena's Emmy speech was the center of, I knew that we're hitting peak Lena Waithe right now," continued Nevins. "But this show is hopefully going to be with us for a very long time. We're so lucky to have her."

Waithe was the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing for the deeply personal episode of Master of None, "Thanksgiving," that chronicled the story of her coming out, and the Netflix show is up for a best comedy series Golden Globe.

But Waithe has no qualms about putting more personal stories onscreen in The Chi, about the neighborhood in which she grew up.

"It pours out of me. I have to get it out," she told THR on the red carpet outside Los Angeles' Downtown Independent theater. "Writers, we have to get it out of our bodies or else we'll go crazy."

The Chi follows the stories of the residents living in the neighborhood that has become a touchstone for politicians when discussing gun violence.

"Every black boy was not born with a gun in his hand. There's a lot of joy, there's a lot of love, there's a lot of working-class folks in that city," Waithe told THR. "Yeah, it has its complexities, but at the end of the day, it's beauty. There's beauty there. And there's still a struggle there, too. But it's a mixture of both, and no one should look at it as either or. It's not a city full of saints or sinners. It's a mix of both."

Executive producer Common said he's hopeful the series will portray the complexities of life that are not unique to Chicago.

"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," he said. "I want them 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."

Added Common, "It's about humanity, and I think when you see stories like Moonlight, and you see stories like Atlanta, whether serious or funny, you find when stories are clever and they're creative and they have heart to them, you relate to the humanity in the people."

The Chi star Jason Mitchell (Mudbound, Straight Outta Compton), who plays an up-and-coming chef whose younger brother is shot and killed, said he is deeply invested in the message of the show.

"You know, it's 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," said the actor. "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."

Following the screening — which was introduced by Waithe after a joyous standing ovation — guests made their way to The Container Yard in L.A.'s Little Tokyo, where they dined on deep-dish pizza from Chicago staple Lou Malnati's, Chicago-style hot dogs, tacos and more before hitting the dance floor to celebrate the series' debut.