Snow­fall traces tur­bu­lent start of crack epi­demic

John Sin­gle­ton se­ries de­buts on FX Canada on Wed­nes­day

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - TONY WONG

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.”

MARK DAVIS/FX, TNS

John Sin­gle­ton’s new show, “Snow­fall,” stars Mal­colm Mays as Kevin, left, Dam­son Idris as Franklin and Isa­iah John as Leon.

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