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