SXSW: Lena Waithe on How 'The Chi' Tells Black Stories Never Before Seen

"I have this theory that black people are always out of breath. We can never rest," said the creator of the Showtime drama at the Austin, Texas festival.
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Lena Waithe

When Lena Waithe set out to write her own Showtime drama The Chi, her goal was to be authentic.

"I wanted to do something real," she said during a panel for the show at SXSW, specifically referring to how she wanted to portray African-Americans in her hometown of Chicago. "It's a unique way to look at black people We're really just being. We're not tap dancing, we're not trying to get out of the hood, we're not rapping or doing other things we traditionally see on TV."

"We’re not rapping?" joked Common, to laughs from the audience. Actors Jason Mitchell and Jacob Latimore join Waithe and Common on stage for the hourlong session, moderated by TV Guide's Jim Halterman. Sprinkled through the panel were clips for The Chi that the producers and castmembers would use as an entry point into the various issues the series delves into.

From the Emmy-winning Master of None scribe, the drama explores Chicago's South Side and follows a half dozen characters as they navigate through the city, where growing up can be a matter of life and death. Mitchell stars as an ambitious and confident young guy who dreams of opening his own restaurant some day, but is torn between the promise of a new life and his responsibility to his family.

The Chi was originally ordered to pilot in August 2015 but later parted ways with director Clark Johnson (The Wire). Showrunner Elwood Reid came on board, along with director Rick Famuyiwa, and the pair retooled the series along with Waithe. "Luckily, Showtime stayed with me and gave us another strike at it," Waithe said. "I really feel like we hit it out of the park." The Chi was renewed for a second season in January.

Ultimately, Waithe wants to do justice with the series' portrayal of Chicago's black population, which she said is reported on but usually by foreigners who don't understand the nuances of their real-life situations. "I have this theory that black people are always out of breath. We can never rest," she said, explaining a clip that shows one of the show's young men getting arrested. "It’s that thing of, we go from chains to handcuffs."

Common, for his part, sung Waithe's praises, calling her a "visionary" who was the absolute right person to tell stories about black life that people have never seen. "I feel like those stories are some of the best stories we can tell in America today because they break barriers," he remarked. "Other nationalities get to see black people in a new way."