Crack Cocaine

Snowfall Presents Cracked View of Drug History

John Singleton's latest is a hackneyed embrace of debunked conspiracies.


'Snowfall,' FX

Snowfall. FX. Wedneday, July 5, 10 p.m.

John Singleton was once the buzz king of Hollywood. At 24, he was the youngest nominee ever for a best directing Oscar for Boyz n the Hood, which he wrote while a film student at the University of Southern California. His film launched a whole generation of stars. (Cuba Gooding, Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Laurence Fishburne, Nia Long, Regina King, and Angela Bassett all got their first major exposure in Boyz.)

These days, however, the biggest buzz around Singleton is about films from which he's been bounced. He mostly works on remakes and sequels with lots of flying lead and crashing cars; he hasn't written or directed a movie or, apparently, had a thought of any importance this century.

Nothing in the hackneyed and ahistorical Snowfall is likely to change that. Billing itself as the story of "how crack began," Snowfall is really just a collection of cliches and set pieces you've already seen in other, much better narcodramas.

Set in Compton in 1983, Snowfall represents the collision of two overworked genres: the growing-up-in-the-hood melodrama and the drug-dealer-as-rebellious-resistance-leader action flick. And it's all wrapped up in the old story, thoroughly debunked but eternally popular among hipsters who just know it must be true, that the CIA foisted crack cocaine on America to finance a war in Central America.

All your standard characters are present:

Franklin Saint (British TV actor Damson Idris), the straight-arrow ghetto kid who plays by the rules until one morning when he realizes "the game's rigged … I'm rewriting the rules." His loving mom Cissy (Michael Hyatt, True Detective), leery about Franklin's new direction. His uncle Jerome (Amin Joseph, The Shield), a burnt-out coke dealer who still knows the ropes.

Lucia Villanueva (Emily Rios, Quinceanera), the daughter of a Mexican crime lord desperate to show daddy that girls can be ruthless mafiosi, too. Avi Drexler (Alon Moni, Body Of Lies), a crazed Israeli cocaine trafficker, because what's a conspiracy film in the ghetto without a sinister Jew? Gustavo Zapata (Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Love Ranch), a dim but brawny ex-wrestler who just wants to be loved, if only by murderers and torturers. And Teddy McDonald (stage actor Carter Hudson), a CIA officer "banished" to Los Angeles (such a comedown once you've seen the bright lights of Kabul) for behavior too mischievous even for his employer.

What sets all these characters spinning toward one another is the arrival in town of a vicious Nicaraguan contra (TV character actor Juan Javier Cardenas) with a planeful of Colombian cocaine and a need for a sales force. Working together, the group comes up with cheap, addictive crack, the greatest drug marketing ploy of all time until the Yves Saint Laurent TV ad for its Belle d'Opium commercial, in which a seductive blonde model plugged perfume by appearing to shoot up.

As history, Snowfall is drooling idiocy. The story of the CIA using cocaine to underwrite the anti-communist civil war in Nicaragua at a time when Congress cut off funding, advanced in the late 1990s by a San Jose Mercury News reporter who was long on ambition and short on facts, was shot to pieces by other news media. (Not to mention that Congress didn't cut funding to the contras until 1985, two years after the time frame of Snowfall.) And there is no evidence that crack originated in Los Angeles; it seems to have been derived from the smoking of coca paste, which was popular in Peru and the Bahamas in the 1970s and then spread to the east coast of the United States.

But, okay, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter may have been thinly sourced, but it was pretty entertaining anyway. So perhaps we shouldn't judge Snowfall as a history text. Unfortunately, it's no better as an entertainment vehicle. Nothing in the show seems authentic.

Its plot devices are absurd. (What Israeli cocaine merchant would even allow a kid to wander into its mansion headquarters off the street, much less talk shop with him, much much less front him, cash-free, a kilo of cocaine?) Its bits of street-life wisdom are indecipherable. ("Money ain't nothing but paper, with them crackers' faces on it"—what does that mean? South Central has gone Bitcoin?) Its cast is competent, but there's not a Ron O'Neal in the bunch. (Nor, for that matter, a Curtis Mayfield on the soundtrack.) And its inner-city existential angst has been done a thousand times better in other films, including Boyz n the Hood. John Singleton should screen it sometime—he might learn something.