*Interviews with the cast and Lena Waithe were conducted prior to the SAG/WGA strikes*
The Chi has been entertaining audiences for nearly seven years. When it first premiered, the coming-of-age series set out to tell the story of a community where young Black boys go on a journey to turn into young Black men, for better or worse.
Audiences were first introduced to the characters of Kevin, Jake and Papa, played by actors Alex Hibbert, Michael V. Epps, and Shamon Brown Jr., as young adolescent Black boys who in the end needed guidance in order to push through the challenges that each of them faced. In fact, two of the running themes found in the series were fatherhood and mentorship. Many viewers returned season after season to explore the challenges the Chicagoans would face while being entertained.
At the 2023 American Black Film Festival in June, The Quintessential Gentleman caught up with Emmy award-winning producer, The Chi creator and executive producer Lena Waithe. The Queen & Slim director discussed why mentorship was important to her through her Hillman Group Mentorship Lab.
“Mentorship is a part of who I am and why I am where I am,” she says while discussing her career. The proof is there from her film projects to television shows such as Showtime’s The Chi. As audiences have watched its three young stars grow into young men throughout the series' sixth season, The Chi also represented a community that continued to rise above the social illnesses that many urban communities can relate to.
Michael V. Epps
When discussing the impact of the show’s creator, the actors expressed their admiration and gratitude for Waithe. “She’s been in this industry a long time... her being from Chicago as well, it’s always that connection,” Epps, who met Waithe at 10 years old, explains in an exclusive interview with his costars.
The young actors praised Waithe’s guidance, constructive criticism, and her ability to motivate and inspire them on set. “When we have our conversation with Lena, she's always giving us advice or helping us go about the script, or she's always throwing a challenge at us,” Brown says. “When she does that, I feel like she trusts us and knows that we can complete this mission that she gave. She has been a great mentor.”
The drama series witnessed a remarkable 65% surge in streaming viewership on Paramount+ following the release of the first eight episodes of Season 6 on August 4. During the first seven days, the Season 6 premiere garnered more than 1.8 million viewers, making it the most-watched season debut in The Chi‘s history, according to Paramount Global.
“It is an overall blessing, a lot of shows don’t make it past its first one or two seasons,” Brown, explains. In a time where Black storytelling is being left out of the Hollywood machine, there is already anticipation for Season 7 of the hit drama.
“Viewers are watching our lives change…they are watching hair grow on our faces,” Hibbert says about the longevity of The Chi. “Us as actors getting to show the real inside of each character is my favorite part,” he continues.
For Hibbert, the appreciation from fans who acknowledge the representation that The Chi highlights is special for him. “When I am walking on the street and fans tell me I am their nephew or I act just like their kid it helps me as an actor.”
“I really love this show. The show was one of my first big projects and it's also a representation of our city,” Epps shares. He also shares that he loves the show not only because of how it highlights Chicago but also because the show “touches on topics that the city faces.”
One of the main topics of the show is its depiction of Black boys and men. In an age where stereotypes not only put us but hold us in a negative light, The Chi has pushed boundaries for its rawness and how much the show is grounded in the grace Black boys and men should receive on their journey.
Shamon Brown Jr.
“Not all Black men are thugs or athletes… not all Black men are gangsters in the industry looking for trouble,” Brown says. “There are different types of us. Black men are fathers, lovers, protectors… We’re human, we cry, we love, and we laugh. We’re beautiful human beings. I am happy The Chi shows the different shades of us,” he adds.
Grace for the Black man is too often not given. As each of the characters continues to grow throughout the seasons, viewers have watched the challenges they face. And when bad decisions are made, we see the consequences of those actions. But in society’s eyes, Black men remain stuck in their past lives, no matter how much change has happened throughout their lives.
“You can make a mistake in your challenge,” Hibbert says. “One of the things young Black men need to understand is that you can redeem yourself anytime you want.” The actor speaks with conviction while discussing mistakes, letting his fans know that “it is okay to make mistakes because mistakes is how you learn and will help you navigate this crazy world.”
While speaking about the characters of The Chi, Hibbert expresses his love for how the show depicts growth. “Yes, you were in a situation last season, but look at you now,” he says about the journey of these characters. “Elevated from the past issue you were going through,” he continues. “We could all elevate through anything and we can do anything we want. We are that powerful as people.” And about season six, Hibbert says we are going to see “young Black men to older Black men come together.” The young star shares his point of view saying, “That's what, mainly we need more of. Our community sticking together. The old helping the young, the young teaching the new of what's going on now.…everybody needs to educate everybody.”
Like many of our Black shows and movies, the age-old question of how we are being represented seems to always take center focus. Whereas other communities can simply entertain, shows that are made for us are put on a pedestal of responsibility. But with such a broad audience and popcorn-eating drama that continues to heat up season after season, Waithe and Co. show they understand those who are looking for a reflection of themselves as well as the need to be entertained. For the young stars and the characters they play, the reflection of Black fatherhood is a much-needed and much-welcomed theme of The Chi.
The trio praised the show's portrayal of father figures and the significance of that representation. They emphasized the importance of showing the diversity of fatherhood and the positive influence it has on the characters' lives. They highlighted the show’s role in challenging stereotypes and showcasing the complex dynamics of fatherhood.
“Just as a mother is important, a father is equally just as important,” Hibbert says about how the show highlights fatherhood. “A mother will nurture you, but a father will sharpen you and get you ready for the world.”
“I definitely liked that the show shows Black men stepping up. From season one of Emmett (Jacob Latimore) kind of being a deadbeat dad. To by the end of the season, he's trying to be father of the year,” Brown shares.
By showcasing the pleasant and not-so-pleasant moments in our lives and in our communities, sometimes having to be a reflection and take on a role that will face criticism is too much to bear. But it is all about mindset.
“It’s awesome because we make this to reach people, to create more empathy in people. We hope that people see themselves or just see something and are entertained,” Luke James, who plays Victor, explained in an interview with Revolt about the responsibility of the cast.
Conversations that seem to be missed are the burden of having to represent a whole community for actors, especially young stars such as our latest Cover Gentlemen, as more eyes continue to watch them grow into young adults. More eyes could also mean more temptation.
“You have to know where to be at the right time,” Hibbert says about taking on the limelight as his star rises. “A lot of people get lost in making moves, but sometimes when making moves you can just be sitting down.”
As the Black community continues to fight to prioritize our mental health, hearing the perspective of actors who have cameras in their faces on set and even more so off set with the rise of social media, always gives a significant outlook.
“I like to do things that make me happy,” Brown says about taking care of his mental health. “Working with my cast makes me happy. I song write… I just do things with the people I love,” he went on to explain. “ I am very in tune with my feelings, I am never too scared or shy to talk about my feelings,” he says. “Especially in this industry, there are ups and downs. Sometimes you may want to quit, sometimes you may want to cry. As a Black man people want to have us in a bubble until we snap. So, for me, personally always having that outlet to express my feelings so I can have a clear mind and be at peace is important.”
“I'm not big on being in the spotlight or having attention on me. I don't care to do things or be in the limelight or try to keep up with trends,” Epps shares about how he maintains healthy mental health.
As the young stars of The Chi continue to rise and evolve, their journey serves as a testament to their talent, resilience and dedication. Their camaraderie and shared vision for a positive portrayal of Black men in the media stand as a source of inspiration for audiences everywhere. With their eyes set on new horizons, Alex Hibbert, Shamon Brown Jr., and Michael V. Epps will leave an indelible mark on the entertainment industry and beyond.
The trio expressed excitement about their ventures in music and other creative endeavors. With an air of anticipation and a sense of unity, they alluded to the bright future that lies ahead for each of them.
From child actors to young adult stars, the kids of The Chi know the magnitude of a show such as theirs. Make no mistake, the entertainment value of The Chi is ever so present, but getting to depict the Black boy’s journey from adolescence to adulthood has been one of the most polarizing themes of the show.
While Black men are not a monolith, Hibbert, Epps, and Brown’s characters show why our complexities, behaviors, smiles, love and brotherhood all matter.
Check out the full interview below.
The sixth season of The Chi, produced by 20th Television, streams Fridays on Paramount+ with SHOWTIME plan.
Photo Credit: Shayan Asgharnia/SHOWTIME