‘Snow­fall’: Sin­gle­ton’s el­egy for the neigh­bor­hood he lost

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY SCOTT TOBIAS style@wash­post.com

The new FX se­ries “Snow­fall” opens on a neigh­bor­hood block in South Cen­tral Los An­ge­les in the sum­mer of 1983. The af­ter­noon sun shim­mers through the palm trees. Sprin­klers hiss on green lawns. Chil­dren con­gre­gate around an ice cream truck. And through it all, the in­fec­tious groove of Ron­nie Hudson and the Street Peo­ple’s funk sin­gle “West Coast Po­plock” floods the sound­track, hail­ing the party vibe of Comp­ton and “good old Watts.” The se­quence ends with a crane shot that ex­tends above the trees, peer­ing down on a com­mu­nity that teems with vi­tal­ity.

Con­sider that the “be­fore” photo. The se­ries is about get­ting to the “af­ter” photo, fol­low­ing a crack epi­demic that rav­aged the streets in short or­der. A year later, that ice cream truck may reap­pear, but it will be of­fer­ing highs more po­tent than frozen treats. For co-cre­ator John Sin­gle­ton, it was im­por­tant for view­ers to un­der­stand that South Cen­tral un­der­went a dra­matic tran­si­tion from the place where he came of age.

“The open­ing of the show is the ’hood the way I re­mem­ber it,” says Sin­gle­ton. “South Cen­tral has parts of the ghetto, but it’s beau­ti­ful. It’s Los An­ge­les. There are palm trees. The colors are very vi­brant. There are al­ways kids play­ing in the streets, es­pe­cially in the spring and sum­mer­time. I re­mem­ber those times as be­ing some of the best times of my life.”

Sin­gle­ton also re­calls the per­ils of his youth, and how he learned to stay within cer­tain un­marked bor­ders for fear of step­ping into the line of fire. “Th­ese were very dan­ger­ous times for me as a teenager, be­cause they were my for­ma­tive years,” he says. “You had peo­ple who were just com­ing into ado­les­cence that were try­ing to make money and had ac­cess to guns. Peo­ple were very im­pul­sive at the time. The jux­ta­po­si­tion be­tween the beauty and the pathos of the neigh­bor­hood is some­thing I wanted [‘Snow­fall’] to show.”

“Snow­fall” rep­re­sents a home­com­ing for Sin­gle­ton, re­turn­ing to the site of his elec­tri­fy­ing 1991 de­but fea­ture, “Boyz N The Hood,” which he made shortly af­ter grad­u­at­ing from film school at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. At age 24, Sin­gle­ton was both the youngest per­son and the first African Amer­i­can ever nom­i­nated for the best­di­rec­tor Os­car, and the film touched off a wave of black film­mak­ers who shined a light on ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods that were ei­ther lit­tle seen or woe­fully mis­un­der­stood. Though much of “Boyz N The Hood” takes place around the time it was re­leased, it opens in 1984, the year af­ter “Snow­fall” be­gins, with a home in­va­sion that the young hero’s pow­er­ful fa­ther, played by Lau­rence Fish­burne, has to fend off. South Cen­tral had al­ready taken a turn.

Among the show’s di­verse cross sec­tion of play­ers in the drug trade, Franklin Saint (Dam­son Idris) could be a char­ac­ter out of “Boyz N The Hood,” a 19-year-old pot dealer who seizes the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pand his busi­ness but slides down a slip­pery slope. In the early episodes, Franklin of­fers him­self as the mid­dle man be­tween a co­caine sup­plier and an ea­ger dis­trib­u­tor, but cir­cum­stances chal­lenge his es­sen­tial de­cency and dis­taste for vi­o­lence. “He’s not Scar­face,” says Sin­gle­ton. “He’s just a lit­tle kid who’s try­ing to make his way into a busi­ness that could kill him at any mo­ment.”

The coars­en­ing of Franklin’s soul gives “Snow­fall” a com­pelling moral cen­ter, but the show ex­pands into other in­ter­sect­ing worlds, too, in­clud­ing a Mex­i­can Amer­i­can crime fam­ily in East L.A. and a CIA op­er­a­tive (Carter Hudson) who is try­ing to use the co­caine trade to fun­nel money and weapons to the Nicaraguan con­tras.

Sin­gle­ton and co-cre­ator Eric Ama­dio ini­tially took “Snow­fall” to Show­time be­fore set­ting it up at FX. Af­ter a pi­lot was shot two years ago, FX made some changes and turned the se­ries over to showrun­ner Dave An­dron, a long­time writer and pro­ducer on “Jus­ti­fied,” the net­work’s hit Ap­palachian crime se­ries, and the vet­eran ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Thomas Sch­lamme (“The West Wing”). The re­sult feels like a fu­sion of An­dron’s and Sin­gle­ton’s sen­si­bil­i­ties, a crime thriller that’s sharply at­tuned to the re­al­ism of a city in tran­si­tion.

For his part, An­dron likens the crack epi­demic to a bomb be­ing dropped. “I was very sur­prised to learn that even in 1983, [South Cen­tral] was still just a work­ing­class neigh­bor­hood. Every­body I’ve talked to, in­clud­ing John, can at­test that things were still rel­a­tively okay. By the sum­mer of ’84, by the time the Olympics showed up one year later, it was a war zone. How did some­thing turn that vi­o­lent, that ugly, that quickly?”

“Snow­fall” ex­plores the many facets of that cen­tral is­sue, from the mal­ice and feck­less­ness of politi­cians and po­lice to the fam­i­lies and in­di­vid­u­als ripped apart by ad­dic­tion and vi­o­lence. For Sin­gle­ton and An­dron, it all feeds into a his­toric con­tin­uum of as­saults on the black com­mu­nity, of a piece with slav­ery and Jim Crow laws. Co­caine doesn’t come from Los An­ge­les, af­ter all, and even in those early episodes, ex­ter­nal forces are bear­ing down on the char­ac­ters.

“Had crack not landed, what would have hap­pened?” won­ders An­dron. “Would that next gen­er­a­tion have been more ed­u­cated, have bro­ken down more bar­ri­ers? In­stead, what we had was the com­plete op­po­site, where lit­er­ally a plague was un­leashed on a neigh­bor­hood that prob­a­bly set that com­mu­nity and oth­ers like it around the coun­try back maybe gen­er­a­tions. That’s some­thing that was re­ally shat­ter­ing to me and dif­fi­cult to get my head around.”

“Crack was kind of like the ham­mer on the anvil,” Sin­gle­ton says. “They say crack is the only drug that could make a black woman leave her chil­dren.

“Then [the gov­ern­ment] cre­ated un­just laws to pun­ish small amounts of crack co­caine, as op­posed to pow­der co­caine,” he adds. “We’re not straight point­ing the fin­ger at the CIA on the show, but we are say­ing they looked the other way. It wasn’t like a di­a­bol­i­cal plot to de­stroy the black com­mu­nity, but we know that was the afteref­fect.”

The role the CIA did or did not play in the crack epi­demic re­mains a source of tremen­dous con­tro­versy, one that An­dron ad­mits has fos­tered “a ton of con­spir­acy and fringe no­tions on ei­ther side of the line.” The early episodes of “Snow­fall” tread lightly over the sub­ject, fol­low­ing a CIA op­er­a­tive who’s painted as more of a free­lancer than the tip of some larger spear.

But the gen­eral feel­ing of ex­ploita­tion — of prof­its be­ing made off the suf­fer­ing of the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple — is a driv­ing force on the show.

“What­ever de­bate there may be about crack and its ori­gins,” says An­dron, “I think you can’t de­bate that it af­fected peo­ple in poor, more ur­ban ar­eas more than it af­fected folks in, say, Bev­erly Hills.”

To that end, An­dron makes one broad con­nec­tion among the var­i­ous char­ac­ters and groups that in­ter­sect on “Snow­fall”: “I’d like to be­lieve that if any of th­ese peo­ple knew what crack ul­ti­mately would do, they would choose a dif­fer­ent path to bet­ter their life. But ob­vi­ously they, like real peo­ple at the time, had no idea what’s com­ing.”

MICHAEL YARISH/FX

In “Snow­fall,” Dam­son Idris plays Franklin Saint, a Los An­ge­les teen who gets en­snared in the crack trade. The char­ac­ter pro­vides the moral cen­ter of the se­ries.

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