Anywhere can be a prison, depending on the circumstances. The job with the salary that keeps your kids fed but comes with a racist boss can be a prison. The gang-riddled neighborhood you’ve never left because your family lives there can be a prison. This week’s episode of The Chi, makes some of the characters come to terms with the metaphoric bars they’ve been held captive behind this whole time.
The most depressingly unfair prison is usually the one made out of your own home. When your shelter makes you a target, you become imprisoned by your own livelihood, and that’s no way to live. Watching community members in Jerrika’s house recall grievances of being evicted for minor infractions carried the episode’s heaviest emotional weight. One woman was evicted because she let her spouse stay with her for a few weeks while he stayed overtime at work. Another woman was evicted because of a family member’s arrest for later dismissed drug selling charges. All they did was live and without other knowledge or consent became prisoners of forces beyond their control.
Jerrika mentions how she’s heard of unjust evictions from a real estate organization known as CHC. In reality, a recent report from local housing advocacy organization Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing concluded landlords in majority-African American neighborhoods filed evictions four times as much as landlords in mostly white neighborhoods. In The Chi, the CHC possibly is evicting people in order to not pay to relocate all of the tenants of buildings they wish to renovate and sell to private developers. In reality, real estate company Pangea has filed more than 9,000 evictions in Chicago since 2009, under the duplicitous guise of revitalizing neighborhoods wrecked by the recession. These people on The Chi and in the Chicago we all know have done nothing wrong but live in circumstances where existing in their homes is a hindrance to a faceless company’s economic gain.
One person from The Chi who can attest to feeling trapped by someone else’s economic gain is Brandon, who is a prisoner of his ambition and a circumstance he unwittingly put himself in with Otis “Douda” Perry (Curtiss Cook), the head of the 63rd Street Mob. He accepted Perry’s offer to invest in his taco truck business, an offer similarly deceptive as the CHC’s evictions. Once Brandon realizes Douda is connected to the gang (and by extension, so is he), he tries to cut ties before the mob boss informs him in doing so, Brandon would have to pay back six-figures he knows he doesn’t have yet. Money and ambition is, to an extent, a prison of our own making but, The Chi explores how the city itself can force people to walk into those prisons even after confronting them.
Douda offers to expand Brandon’s taco business from a few trucks to a brick and mortar restaurant across the street from Brandon’s old boss. Similarly to the new truck and $50,000 Douda gifted Brandon in previous episodes, the restaurant would more than likely be another way to help Douda launder his illegally obtained money. Then, just as you can see Brandon’s morality battle with his ambition behind his concerned eyes, Douda asks if he wants to be on a taco truck in February in Chicago. Using the same Chicago weather that killed three people during this year’s polar vortex as a way to make the offer seem like a lifeline for his ambition is one that could ensure Brandon never leaves Douda’s insidious grip.
But, not everyone succumbs to their circumstances. Some on The Chi break out of their cells. Precocious Chicago North Side Academy student Malcolm Whitman (Cayen Martin), who lives in the same south side Chicago neighborhood as Kevin, travels to his prestigious school before the sun rises every morning. Malcolm is what would happen if Kevin had a tethered version in Us that is as eager to discuss shark facts he learned at his school as he is to sell marijuana at that same school, which is largely populated with affluent white students. Malcolm lives in a violent neighborhood and goes to school where he is the only black person, leading him to, admittedly, have no friends. But, he doesn’t succumb to either setback and instead leverages the benefits of both—streets smarts and kids with disposable income—to break free.
While Malcolm traveling miles away to simply go to school is liberating, there’s an inherent depressive quality to the fact a child has to travel that far to get better schooling. Data on more than 24,000 eighth-graders enrolled in Chicago Public Schools in the fall of 2008 demonstrated that 25 percent of those children traveled more than four miles from their home to go to school. In contrast, students from affluent neighborhoods during that same period never traveled more than four miles to school.
As the second season of The Chi near its conclusion, it’ll be interesting to see who remains trapped by their situations, who escapes from them, and who finds themselves in ones they never knew existed.