FX cocaine drama ‘Snowfall’ draws from personal stories
Detroit native and 'Snowfall' cast member Angela Lewis on the plot of Snowfall and the Renaissance of Detroit. Robin Buckson / The Detroit News
Screening at Emagine Theatre Royal Oak draws crowd to meet co-creator John Singleton and show’s talent, including actress and Detroit native Angela Lewis
In 1983, hip-hop was increasing in popularity, colors were overexposed and a blizzard of crack cocaine blanketed South Central Los Angeles’ black and Latino communities, leaving destruction in its wake.
Cable network FX follows this storm through a tightly knit web of stories in “Snowfall,” showing how the drug promised the American dream for struggling families, but delivered the exact opposite — an epidemic.
A screening for the pilot episode, released last week, was shown at Emagine Royal Oak Theatre on Tuesday evening and featured a Q&A with the co-creators and some of the actors.
The TV show, three-and-a-half years in the making, is co-created by famed movie director John Singleton and Dave Andron, writer and producer for FX’s “Justified.” It features many fresh faces, some of whom came to the screening, including Londoner Damson Idris, who portrays young street entrepreneur (aka drug dealer) Franklin Saint; Detroiter Angela Lewis, Franklin’s Aunt Louie; Atlanta native Isaiah John, Franklin’s friend Leon Simmons; Carter Hudson, undercover CIA agent Terry McDonald; and veteran actress Michael Hyatt, who plays Franklin’s mother, Cissy Saint.
The screening has toured L.A,. Atlanta, Philadelphia, New Orleans, St. Louis, Detroit and New York. The locations reflected where the core audiences are, said FX spokeswoman Selam Belay.
For Suga Rae, a DJ with Detroit’s 105.1 The Bounce, the screening was a great opportunity to meet the actors.
“I’m hooked on the show from the first episode,” she said. “It’s refreshing, a new twist on the drug epidemic.”
Actor and b-boy Tokkyo Faison said he likes the story, the time period and the music. He recalled how during that time, some b-boys became rappers, and the rappers who didn’t make it started selling crack.
“It just took over,” he said. “I know people this has happened to, so the story makes sense.”
At the screening, Lewis and Singleton got personal about the storyline and the humanity of the characters.
Lewis hails from Detroit’s east side. She graduated from Cass Technical High School, attended the University of Michigan for acting and moved to New York before settling in L.A. three years ago.
Lewis had to dive deep to inhabit her character, Aunt Louie — who she is, why her heart is broken, how she is vulnerable and how she relates to Louie.
“I felt like it might be easy to disregard someone like Louie because we see her in the streets all the time and we might turn a blind eye, or, she reminds us of something bad that happened in our lives and is still happening,” Lewis said. “I didn’t want that to happen, so it was really important for me to love her as much as I could so that other people could love her, too.”
Cocaine did impact her family, she said, but her family is strong and was able to survive it — a sentiment her mother, Augustine Lewis, echoed.
“We’re from the east side, but we kept her out of the ’hood as much as we could … but she got the character down pat,” she said.
Augustine and her husband, Anthony Lewis, said they are proud of their daughter’s work as an actress, a career she wanted since she was young.
“It’s such a pleasure to see her follow her dreams,” he said.
Detroiter Sean Rodriguez Sharpe, an actor and Singleton fan, heard about the screening through a series of workshops he had participated in that Lewis was involved.
“She is really amazing,” he said. “It’s really respectable that she wants to come back and support local artists.”
Hundreds of miles away and a handful of decades ago, Singleton grew up in L.A. Naturally, he said, the city became the location for a retelling of the story he witnessed firsthand.
As a teen, Singleton said he saw his neighborhood transformed by the crack epidemic — even for kids, who started selling drugs and using violence.
It wasn’t always like that.
“It wasn’t the greatest place, but it wasn’t always as bad as it got,” Singleton said. “There was a time when people didn’t have bars on their homes, when we played football and baseball in the street and people looked out for each other’s kids as if they were their own kids.”
It’s precisely that atmosphere he and his team tried to recreate in the first episode. Idris, who said he learned to speak South Central Los Angelese from Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Ice Cube and WC (pronounced “Dub-C,” his vocal coach), said the first episode portrays the world of South Central L.A. before drugs.
“It wasn’t always a war zone,” Idris said. “The first episode is fun,” Idris said. “I think especially from an outside-in perspective you think if you walk down the street, you get shot, but these are people helping their families.”
As for the complex connection between the government, the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras, L.A. gangs and the communities hardest-hit by crack, Andron said there will never be a simple explanation.
He attested to reading credible and incredible urban legends and talking with as many people as he could who had connections to the events that transpired more than thirty years ago.
“Nobody from the CIA is going to come out and say what really happened, so at some point you’re going to have to pick a lane and run with it,” he said. “The way they looked the other way, that’s the most credible version of what happened.”
The one liberty the show takes, he said, is making the CIA officer more active in the storyline.
“He’s going to be in more contact with the people than a normal CIA officer would, and that’s just something you have to do to serve the story and make it more interesting to watch,” he said.
Andron dismissed, however, the idea that the CIA dumped drugs into the community. One representation of this allegation is famously put forth in “Dark Alliance,” a three-part series printed in 1996 by San Jose Mercury News investigative reporter Gary Webb. The controversies survived the reporter, who committed suicide in 2004.
Andron was quick to acknowledge the debunked status of Webb’s story, saying that “entertaining one guy’s take on the situation detracts from the real story.”
“It’s often more incompetency than malevolence. There’s a naïveté,” he said of the CIA, which saw itself as fighting toward a fully good and righteous goal — the end of communism — and just looked the other way when it came to its biggest side affect, drugs.
“Once you really look at the spectrum, you can safely say they looked the other way.”
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