There’s a lot to like about The Chi, Lena Waithe’s new Showtime drama about the intersecting lives of various members of a South Side Chicago community, which premiered on January 7. (Waithe was the first black woman to win the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for her work on Master of None, in which she also stars.) I’m not from Chicago, so I can’t properly speak to the show’s handling of Chicago’s black communities or depictions of violence and strength from an insider’s perspective. (Also, I hear the geography is a little off, but show me a TV show set in a major city where that’s not the case.) What I can say is from the writing to the character development, the show is riveting, employing a talented cast that inspires immediate investment in their characters while doing away with many of the tired stereotypes that swirl around depictions of black communities in large U.S. cities.
Amongst the roster, which includes familiar faces like Straight Outta Compton's Jason Mitchell and The Wire’s Sonja Sohn, the one that stands out the most for me is Alex Hibbert, the young actor who won acclaim for his performance as young Chiron in the 2016 Barry Jenkins film Moonlight. In The Chi, Hibbert plays Kevin Williams, an average middle schooler whose main concern is his school crush until one night, he witnesses a murder while walking through the neighborhood with his two best friends. Hibbert convincingly portrays a street smart young boy who is far from naive, yet still is innocent and raw in the way all children are. His acting feels neither forced nor hokey, and very much on par with the level of sophistication he exhibited in his role as Chiron.
One of the catches acclaimed child actors face is forever being boxed into the role that initially earned them awards and fame.
Watching him perform in yet another dramatic role, this time on a TV show, felt like something special to me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, until I realized that few other young black actors have managed to parlay film success into a starring role in a dramatic series. In assuming his lead role on The Chi, Hibbert is joining a small group that includes Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin and Queen Sugar’s Ethan Hutchinson. Young black actors are represented on television mostly in roles on sitcoms and comedic kids shows like ABC’s Black-ish, Disney Channel’s Raven’s Home and, in the more recent past, Everybody Hates Chris, The Bernie Mac Show, and Malcolm in the Middle. When it comes to dramas such as Empire, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, lead roles are usually reserved for adult and young adult actors. The Wire season 4 is the last show I can remember loving that allowed black child actors the opportunity to flex their chops in a starring role on a TV drama.
One of the catches acclaimed child actors face is forever being boxed into the role that initially earned them acclaim. Though Haley Joel Osment went on to make a number of films after The Sixth Sense in 1999, he will forever be known as the tearful boy who whispered “I see dead people” at the film’s legendary end. Similarly, Jonathan Lipnicki starred in the successful children’s film’s Stewart Little and Like Mike after his breakthrough role in 1996’s Jerry Maguire and went on to earn a recurring role on the long-forgotten sitcom The Jeff Foxworthy Show soon after. Still, his skill as an actor in a drama is forever tied to the role in which he famously stated the weight of a human head.
Hibbert’s ability to parlay his big screen drama success to a recurring dramatic lead is no small feat for a child actor of any race, but it’s also something that other accomplished black child actors have rarely been able to achieve. Quevenzhané Wallis and Jaden Smith were hailed for their work in movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Pursuit of Happyness. While they both found further success in film — with Smith, of course, branching into music and growing into a social media star — they never stepped into the particular kind of visibility and professional challenge that comes with a lead role on a dramatic series. Other actors succeeded in different genres: Keke Palmer, who first came to public attention for her starring role in the 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee, subsequently landed a starring role on the Nickelodeon sitcom True Jackson, VP, and Amandla Stenberg parlayed her breakout role in The Hunger Games into a main role on the sitcom Mr. Robinson (she also appeared in the supernatural drama Sleepy Hollow, albeit in a recurring role). With the arrival of The Chi, Hibbert’s is paving rare ground for a dramatic child star by taking on a key starring role — and the fact that he, as a black actor, is doing so on a show with a majority black cast and executive producers is something to celebrate.
Of course, there’s no guarantee of what Hibbert’s legacy is going to be, and indeed being remembered for your role in Moonlight would be something to take immense pride in. For now, I’m paying attention. Hibbert effectively evokes timidity and earnestness as Kevin tries to impress his crush by auditioning for the school play; he’s just as successful in conveying how childhood posturing easily gives way to vulnerability and terror when confronted with the foreign violence of real life. I wouldn’t be surprised if audiences come to remember him for this, too, and eventually more.