Snowfall traces turbulent start of crack epidemic
John Singleton series debuts on FX Canada on Wednesday
In the première of “Snowfall,” an undercover officer, assisted by a prostitute, uses a straw to inject cocaine into an orifice not normally used for ingesting drugs.
It has been 26 years since John Singleton was nominated for an Academy Award for the groundbreaking “Boyz N The Hood,” about growing up in South Central Los Angeles. And it seems the director hasn’t lost the propensity for shock.
In “Boyz N The Hood,” it was the opening sequence where two children engage in an expletive-filled verbal and physical barrage.
Singleton revisits familiar ground in his new television series debuting Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX Canada. But like Twin Peaks director David Lynch, he has had to up the stakes the second time around after a decades-long absence spawned more than a few fawning imitators.
“I was thinking about nostalgia and the fact even though there are other shows out there, there still wasn’t a lot about the history and the impact of this period,” Singleton says in an interview. “This time, I wanted to show how Los Angeles had changed for better or worse.”
Snowfall, like Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series “The Get Down,” is about history. Luhrmann’s fanciful series looks at the emergence of hip hop in the Bronx. Singleton looks at the beginning of the crack epidemic in East Los Angeles. It takes place in the turbulent ‘80s.
“Boyz N The Hood” introduced the world to Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut in their acting debuts, and Singleton once more casts unknowns. That includes British actor Damson Idris, who plays Franklin, a college dropout dealing marijuana and working at a convenience store.
“I grew up watching the movies of John Singleton. ‘Boyz N The Hood’ introduced me to this world,” the actor says in an interview. “What was really fascinating, especially coming from England, is the whole history of life here before and after crack. How everything from the Black Panther movement to the formation of the Crips and the Bloods had an influence on the culture of Los Angeles. This was completely foreign to me.”
Idris, 25, says he auditioned for the role five times. For each audition, he would wear Dickies workwear with long white T-shirts to “try to fit in as much as possible into the character. When I went to John’s office for the first time, I didn’t even read. We just walked around the neighbourhood and I tried to absorb everything. It was an education.”
Snowfall aims to show “how crack began.” But the characters are fictional. Apart from Franklin’s storyline, there is a Mexican wrestler working for a crime syndicate and a CIA agent who is working on a funding operation for Contra fighters.
Like much of Singleton’s work, music is central to the message. And the Run — D.M.C.-inspired soundtrack delivers. It is arguably better than “The Get Down,” which had elements of magical realism in a show where the music — central to the whole process — never seemed to ground the characters. It was cancelled after one season, having the dubious honour of being Netflix’s most expensive series ever at $120 million.
“I came in with a pitch for three different types of characters,” Singleton says. “We have people who are Nicaraguan, Israeli, Black and Mexican, and you see the progression from marijuana to cocaine. It is a way to organically pull the elements of the story together and from different communities.”
For Singleton, the history is also personal. He was 15 during the start of the crack epidemic and living in South Central Los Angeles.
“You can say this has been in my head for a while,” Singleton says. “What’s interesting to me is that this happened during the Ronald Reagan administration and now it’s going to be on during another Republican administration. But the problems are still ongoing.”
Idris says he could identify with the issues of living in Los Angeles.
“I didn’t grow up in a rich community in London. There were a lot of Black and white and Asian people, and we were all poor,” Idris says. “I also had situations where some of my friends ended up dying. And I think that might be the same for youth in Los Angeles.”
Executive producer Dave Andron says the first season takes place in the summer of 1983, before the crack explosion a year later. But he has told TV critics that he is hoping to see several seasons of the show so that the history can unfold.
“It would be really unfortunate if we don’t kind of get to see down the line,” Andron says. “Because we not only want to see the impact, but we want to get a sense of the ramifications, the thing that you’re kind of hinting at 30 years later.”
John Singleton’s new show, “Snowfall,” stars Malcolm Mays as Kevin, left, Damson Idris as Franklin and Isaiah John as Leon.