In a cinematic gut punch, Lena Waithe’s The Chi kicks off its second season with one of the most disturbing scenes on television. Admittedly, it’s hard to stomach the brutal assault of an elder, in this case strong-willed Miss Ethel (LaDonna Tittle) in the Southside home she’s lived in for decades. The assault only lasts 40 seconds, but an elderly black woman being kicked repeatedly in the face, thrown against a wall and having her bloodied face dragged across the floor is seldom seen on TV, so it was jarring for Waithe to utilize the arresting visual. Parts of the assault mirrored the real-life assault on a 78-year-old woman by a 36-year-old man on a New York City subway in March, a connection to the real world we live in that makes the scene an emblem of the infuriating exploitation of black women that happens in their own communities. Episode One shows how precarious black lives can be in their own neighborhoods.
The elderly are often pillars of the community, maintaining order even if it means watching a neighbor’s child while they’re out at work or pulling out a shotgun to ward off delinquents, as we’ve seen Miss Ethel is known to do. The truly heartbreaking part of the scene is the fact that what happens to her is becoming more prevalent in America, with the assault rate for elderly women over the age of 60 increasing by 35.4 percent between 2002-2016. The young black assailant in The Chi is able to get Miss Ethel to lower her defenses by mentioning his involvement with the Homeless Veterans Agency, as well as implying her donation would keep a veteran, such as himself, out of trouble. Her’s grandson Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who is in prison for shooting last season’s Coogie Johnson (Jahking Guillory), is a veteran, so Ethel’s attacker is probably someone from the community that may have even grew up around her and already has an idea of her soft spots. The Chi doesn’t paint women as simply exploitable, but also resilient.
Too often on television, the love from a black woman is used as a safety net for a black man. So, it was great to see Waithe, both the series creator and the episode’s director, place scenes in the first episode where it appears as if black women will succumb to their love for an exploitative black man before flipping the script and forcing him to fend for himself. When Emmett (Jacob Latimore) screams into his mother’s intercom that he’s homeless after his mother moved into a one-bedroom apartment without him, the scenes of him trying to do right by his son and being assaulted after sleeping on the train from earlier in the episode make him a sympathetic figure. However, the visible pain on his mother Jada’s face (Yolonda Ross) as she listens in silence, knowing she’s helping him grow into a self-sufficient man, was a powerful reminder of the resiliency of the black woman. The real issue, which The Chi delves into, is the generational guidance that would lead Emmett to thinking his utilitarian view of women was right.
Another poignant theme was the correlation between how men are raised and the subsequent interactions with the women around them. It truly takes a village to raise a man, and the knowledge passed down to the youth from older generations will ultimately help mold their actions. When Emmett’s older boss, Sonny (Cedric Young), tells him “all the girls you know, one of them ought to let you spend the night,” it’s no surprise that it takes Emmett less than half a minute to spot two women he would later try to use his charm on in hopes they’d let him crash. That small conversation with Sonny, and Emmett being willing to sleep in random beds and on the train before asking his father for a place to stay, is a profound commentary on how the abandonment of black boys by past generations of black men stunts their development and plays a paramount role in the exploitation of the black woman.
To that point, growing up in a place like Chicago can force young black men to grow up more quickly than they should. Between September 2011 and late 2018, 174 people under the age of 17 were murdered in Chicago. Chicago’s youth come face to face with their own mortality in ways few youth groups do elsewhere in America. Waithe expertly conveys this by bookending the episode with a choir of children chanting “I wish I could live forever” on Towkio’s “Forever” and Kevin (Alex R. Hibbert) telling his therapist what he wants to be if he grows up. There’s something eerie about children acknowledging their own mortality, but this speaks to the behavior they’ve learned throughout generations.
When Kevin tells his mother “therapy is for white people,” it’s hard to see someone as young as Kevin developing that stereotypical perception on his own seeing as he’s grown up in a progressive household with two mothers, one of which tells him why that thinking is wrong. Add in the fact there’s historically been a negative stigma around therapy in the black community and Kevin’s reluctance to accept mental health treatment after shooting a man is even more devastating because he’s probably too young to realize the choice he’s making is not one of his own.
Ahead of episode one’s airing, The Chi’s star Jason Mitchell told VIBE this season will have moments with his character Brandon and inherited brother Kevin that are more emotionally challenging than anything they did in the first season. With the way Season Two started, we should all prepare for the worst.