Cracking the LA cocaine scene

Damson Idris (above) stars as a 19-year-old drug dealer in Snowfall, which film director John Singleton co-created.
Damson Idris (above) stars as a 19-year-old drug dealer in Snowfall, which film director John Singleton co-created.PHOTO: FOX GROUP
Damson Idris stars as a 19-year-old drug dealer in Snowfall, which film director John Singleton (above) co-created.
Damson Idris stars as a 19-year-old drug dealer in Snowfall, which film director John Singleton (above) co-created.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The drama series Snowfall traces the start of the drug epidemic in 1980s Los Angeles

Snowfall, from film director John Singleton, joins a wave of other gritty crime dramas on television, as well as shows exploring recent periods of American history, both of which have proven popular of late.

But unlike other crime series, "the irony of what we're doing with this is it's a nostalgia show", says Singleton, who co-created the drama as well as wrote and directed some episodes.

The director of the acclaimed 1991 drama Boyz N The Hood, he dipped his toe in the waters of TV by directing single episodes of popular series such as Empire (in 2015), American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson (2016) and Billions (2017).

Last month, the 49-year-old unveiled his own series, Snowfall, which traces the beginnings of the crack cocaine epidemic in 1980s Los Angeles, looking at it through the eyes of several intersecting characters, including a 19-year-old drug dealer named Franklin Saint (Damson Idris).

He says: "There is a whole population of people who have grown up within this environment or who have seen or suffered from the effects of the events of this show.

"And we're saying these are the best of times and the worst of times. What we're doing is very different because we're not necessarily glorifying being a drug dealer and the quick fix of going from rags to riches and then the crash-and- burn," he tells The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles recently.

Idris, the 25-year-old British star of the series, says he sees his drug- dealer character less as a gangster and "more of a street entrepreneur, who, above all things, wants to provide for his family".

"This is 1983 and a lot of them are getting into cocaine-selling to provide for their families," he says.

In addition, the show introduces younger viewers to a period of recent history that many only know about through music, says Singleton. " A lot of the things that happen in the show have only really been chronicled in music, specifically, West Coast hip-hop, over the last 30 years.

"You have a whole new generation that looks at this show from a pop-culture standpoint because their references for the characters and types of events in this show are in hip-hop music and pop culture."

With this project, the film-maker returns to the political stories that he first made his mark with.

The most famous of these was Boyz N The Hood, a film about three young black men trying to survive in the rough South Central area of Los Angeles in which Singleton himself grew up. It led to a Best Director Oscar nomination for Singleton, then 24, making him the youngest person and the first African-American to get that nod.

After a string of big-budget action films in the early 2000s such as Shaft (2000) and 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), Singleton stepped out of the spotlight for several years.

But now the director - who is divorced from Ghanaian actress Akosua Busia, 50, and has four children aged 17 to 25 - appears to have come back with a renewed enthusiasm for work that comments on race and politics.

Earlier this year, he produced a documentary about the racially charged 1992 Los Angeles riots and, speaking about Snowfall, he suggests the American government's response to the crack problem was racially biased and, thus, ended up criminalising a large swath of the population.

"The laws changed really quickly," he says, noting that the legislation changed suddenly after the death of a basketball star from crack in 1986 and that the new guidelines, which were "made over a weekend", disproportionately affected large numbers of blacks in the inner cities.

Contrast that, however, with the current concern over the widespread use of opioids such as prescription painkillers and heroin in the United States. Singleton says opioid users, who are mostly white, are viewed by the authorities more as victims than criminals.

"It's very interesting to see what's happening right now with the opioid crisis and how it's being handled, as opposed to how crack cocaine was handled. As a black person, I take in how they're handling these contemporary issues as opposed to the way they criminalised multiple generations of people in those times.

"And I'm hoping that people can watch the show or people who are thinking about how to handle these contemporary crises think about what they did in the past and don't repeat it."

•Snowfall airs on FX (Singtel TV Channel 310, StarHub TV Channel 507, and Fox+) on Thursdays at 10pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2017, with the headline 'Cracking the LA cocaine scene'. Print Edition | Subscribe