To exist in one’s Blackness places Black people in a perpetual state of performance on the season four premiere of Showtime’s The Chi. In the season premiere of Lena Waithe’s critically acclaimed drama, the idea of performing a role to maintain harmony permeates every storyline in the episode. Kevin (Alex Hibbert) performs the role of a respectful young man for his girlfriend’s father after sneaking out of her room; a Black couple on the verge of divorce perform as a loving one to convince Keisha (Birgundi Baker) to allow them to adopt her child born from rape; Chicago mayor Otis Perry (Curtiss Cook) performs as an upstanding citizen to assuage the city’s fears of his nefarious gangster ties. But, those are merely compliments to the central message of The Chi’s riveting season premiere: respectability politics.
In the episode’s most harrowing scene, Jake (Michael Epps) and Kevin’s confrontation with a gang member on their way back home attracts the attention of nearby police, who aggressively request the two to show their identification. Jake staunchly opposes and, as quickly as he asserts his independence, he has his face smashed to the pavement by an arresting officer who begins pummeling the high schooler while a crowd gathers around yelling for the officer to stop. This is a grim reality for Black men in Chicago, where a recent study concluded white police officers use force more than any other group of police officers. Jake was nothing more than a statistic in a city that has juvenile detention centers with 70% of those admitted being Black youth. The Chi’s season four premiere is more insidious than a mirror on America’s ills; it’s a microscope into the traumatizing nuance of those ills that make its eradication complicated.
On the surface, the scene with Jake and the police would be simply another reminder of how police officers target young Black men for simply existing in the community they raised them, brutalizing them to maintain law and order. But, The Chi adds context around that scene that shows why performing a role is a means of survival for Black people. Jake was raised with the steely indifference and fidelity to an honor code of the gang life his brothers were part of. When he attends a mostly-white private school, there’s an internal identity conflict between establishing a better future and staying true to what raised him. Minutes before he’s a victim of police brutality, Jake changes out of his private school uniform into his casual wear while on the train from school. In that moment, Jake was removing the skin he performs in to not disturb his private school and slipping into the skin he’s worn his entire life. It’s Kevin’s school uniform that draws the ire of the gang member whose confrontation with Jake ultimately leaves Kevin’s best friend bloodied, battered, and hospitalized.
Here is where The Chi comments on how embedded the idea of performing a role is in Black youth. Recently, four-year-old Gus “Jett” Hawkins was required to remove his braids due to Providence St. Mel’s dress code. From a young age, Jett is forced to come to terms that the identity he wants has to change in order to exist in certain spaces. Jake changing into his regular attire wasn’t just because he hated the uniform or him slipping into a more familiar version of himself; it was more than likely a reflex he developed from years of being beaten in the head with respectability politics. It’s this role of street thug that Jake has played for years that leads Kevin to plead for his friends to not release the footage of Jake being abused by the police, as Kevin thought Jake wouldn’t want the world to see him being punked by a police officer. Jake performed the gangster role so long his best friend didn’t know that justice meant more than rep.
Overall, the episode does a great job establishing season four as one based on Black people’s warring with their own identity. Early in the episode, the father of Kevin’s girlfriend Jemma makes a point to tell Kevin a few kids who look like him burned down a few local businesses, concerned that Black criminality could scare off white people from the city and tank Chicago’s chances at hosting the Olympics. If this season premiere is any indication of what’s to come in season four, these sort of respectability politics may lead to people losing their Black lives, or at the very least, losing their Black identities in the name of survival.
Relive the episode through photos in the gallery below.