'Snowfall': Everything You Need to Know About FX's Origins-of-Crack Drama

From the origins of John Singleton's bold look at Eighties' crack epidemic to why it's already attracting controversy

Everything you need to know about 'Snowfall' – from why John Singleton made this '80s crack-epidemic drama to why it's already attracting controversy. Credit: Mark Davis/FX

It's been 26 years since John Singleton shook up Hollywood with Boyz n the Hood, his feature film debut and a semi-autobiographical story about a Crenshaw teenager trying to live an ordinary life during the height of the Crips/Bloods gang war. Now, the first African-American ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar revisits the crime-ridden Los Angeles he once observed first-hand – and offers a larger, much-needed historical context that helped shape those mean streets.

Singleton's new FX show Snowfall (which debuts on July 5th) follows Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), an ambitious L.A. youngster who makes money selling dope to rich white kids, whom he befriended at the academically advanced Valley high school he was bussed to as a teen. By the end of the pilot episode, Franklin's hustled his way into doing business with some high-powered international criminals, which eventually puts him in a prime spot to distribute the mob's newest product: crack cocaine.

The show takes one kid's mixed-up life – coupled with Singleton's own memories of growing up in the Seventies and Eighties – and uses it the backdrop for a sprawling saga about how crack changed L.A. Here's everything you need to know about the show before you tune in.

It's part Boyz n the Hood, part Goodfellas
Remember all those 1990s movies about young black men getting dragged into a life of crime – Juice, Fresh, Menace II Society, Straight Out of Brooklyn, New Jersey Drive and so forth? A good chunk of every Snowfall episode is a throwback to that era, following Franklin as he navigates the small-time gangster infrastructure of his own neighborhood, while trying to convince his mother Cissy (Michael Hyatt) that he's one of the "good" kids on the block. Singleton and his co-creators Dave Andron and Eric Amadio spend a lot of time detailing the dynamics of their hero's personal life, from the drug-dealing Uncle Jerome (Amin Joseph) who got him into the business, to the way that his seemingly upstanding mom makes most of her money working for a slumlord.

The rest of the show pulls back to put the ironically named Saint family's various enterprises into a bigger picture. Emily Rios plays Lucia Villanueva, the Mexican-American pot kingpin who controls the territory where Franklin plans to do business, while Alon Moni Aboutboul is Avi Drexler, an Israeli crime boss who has connections and clients across Los Angeles and the world. Then there's Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), a disgraced CIA agent who has a plan to get out of the agency's doghouse by becoming an expert in the California drug trade. These different layers – the street-level dealer, the regional boss, the "Mr Big" behind the scenes, the lawman with his own agenda – give this series a genuine sense of scope. (In an interview with The Guardian, Singleton called it his "ghetto Game of Thrones.")

There's a little bit of Boogie Nights to it, too
In one of the pilot's most memorable scenes, Franklin visits former classmates in a ritzy neighborhood, walking through a million-dollar house with a spectacular poolside view. The episode's co-directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah go full Paul Thomas Anderson, choreographing smooth camera moves through rooms filled with cocaine and porn stars. It's no exaggeration to say that Snowfall pushes the limits of explicit content for basic cable: In addition to some gory violence and rough language, the show is liberally peppered with sex and nudity. The raunchier scenes give the series a pulpy kick; more importantly, they also illustrate why Franklin would be seduced by this world. Like Dirk Diggler, he's a working-class kid suddenly surrounded by money, glitz and bare skin. Whose head wouldn't be turned?


One piece of the plot is highly controversial
The addition of Agent McDonald to the cast of characters may raise some eyebrows, given there's been a lot of dispute over the years about just how much responsibility the CIA bears for the rise of crack. Snowfall seems to take at face value the later-retracted San Jose Mercury News "Dark Alliance" series, in which reporter Gary Webb suggested that the U.S. government allowed Nicaraguan Contra rebels to finance their operations via cocaine sales in Los Angeles. (If that story sounds familiar, than you may have seen Jeremy Renner playing Webb in the 2014 movie Kill the Messenger, which was about the attempts to discredit his work.) One of the show's prominent characters is Alejandro Usteves (Juan Javier Cárdenas), a Central American rebel who reluctantly partners up with Teddy. Because of this particular angle, some may see this series as a conspiracy theory-fueled alternate history of early Eighties L.A. – while others will consider it the true story, finally told.

But Singleton personally vouches for the show's veracity
When Snowfall debuted at the ATX Festival last month, Singleton admitted to the audience at a post-screening panel that he couldn't draw on official accounts for the CIA material because it's all been so shrouded in mystery and deliberate obfuscation. He insisted, "There are people that lived this stuff. We had to bring people in the room that could speak to this. We brought in consultants who were deep into each part of it." Singleton also pulled heavily from his own memories of how black L.A. neighborhoods changed when the drug-dealers shifted from selling marijuana to pushing crack. He witnessed first-hand the rise in violence, and saw economic disparity widen as some kids became rich overnight selling rocks while others fell further into poverty and addiction.

And while Singleton recently told The Los Angeles Times that Franklin's story doesn't have much to do with his own life, the two do have one big thing in common: The director had his life changed when we started going to school in the Valley, far away from the crumbling facilities near where he lived. He was ultimately drawn to the arts instead of "business." But like Saint, he looked at the rich people in areas like Encino and Tarzana and discovered a world of possibility.

The star is British, many of the characters are foreigners – and yet the story couldn't be more American
As Franklin Saint, the London-born Damson Idris becomes the latest in a line of U.K. actors to take on quintessentially American roles. (See also: Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out, David Oyelowo in Selma and Ruth Negga in both Loving and AMC's Preacher.) In The Guardian interview, Singleton confessed to being skeptical at first about whether a young Brit in 2017 could understand what it was like to be a black kid in Los Angeles in 1983; he spent a lot of time with Idris talking about his upbringing, and sharing a love of West Coast rap (some of which pops up on Snowfall's soundtrack, alongside vintage funk and classic rock).

In addition to all the shady characters Franklin meets, his experiences are contrasted with what happens to Gustavo "El Oso" Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mancheta), a desperate Mexican wrestler who moonlights as a mob enforcer. The show is primarily about how people who've been excluded from the American dream work outside the system, in search of what they hope will be a better life. That's been a theme of Singleton's work from the beginning – and is now something he'll get to explore on an epic scale.