Promos for FX's newest drama, premiering Wednesday, July 5, tout the series as telling the story of "how crack began." But how much stock can viewers put into the show's account of the origins of the crack epidemic? Is Snowfall based on a true story? Or is it a fiction that simply happens to take place in Los Angeles in the era of rising crack cocaine use?
Snowfall was developed by John Singleton, who was the first black filmmaker to be nominated for an Oscar for both writing and directing his own movie, 1991's Boyz N The Hood. (He also became, and still is, the youngest person ever nominated for Best Director, at the tender young age of 24.) The FX series isn't Singleton's first foray into television — he has previously directed episode of FOX's Empire, FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson, and BET's Rebel — but it is the first time he has personally created a project for the small screen.
According to the show's official description, Snowfall is "a one-hour drama set against the infancy of the crack cocaine epidemic and its ultimate radical impact on the culture as we know it. The story follows numerous characters on a violent collision course, including: Franklin Saint, a young street entrepreneur on a quest for power; Gustavo Zapata, a Mexican wrestler caught up in a power struggle within a crime family; Teddy McDonald, a CIA operative running from a dark past who begins an off-book operation to fund the Nicaraguan Contras; and Luica Villanueva, the self-possessed daughter of a Mexican crime lord."
Singleton himself has described his sprawling saga as "the ghetto Game Of Thrones," as he told The Guardian in a recent interview. Of course, there's one obvious difference between his show and the hit HBO series: Snowfall takes place in our world, not a fictional fantasy kingdom. But that doesn't mean that everything that happens in Snowfall is 100 percent accurate; indeed, in the question of whether the show is fact or fiction, the answer lies… somewhere in between.
None of the characters in Snowfall appear to be based on real people. There's no evidence there was ever a CIA agent named Teddy McDonald, or a Mexican wrestler named Gustavo Zapata, along with the rest of Snowfall's colorful cast of characters. But Singleton is using original characters and storylines to shed light on a very real series of events that took place throughout three locations in 1983: East L.A. South Central, and the CIA.
Some of these are events that the filmmaker himself is all too familiar with; Singleton grew up in South Central in the 1980s, and has said he based the Franklin Saint storyline partly on his own life. "This is kind of like my formative years," he said about Franklin's coming-of-age story at the ATX Festival in June, as reported by The Hollywood Reporter. "Kids from the ghetto smoked weed and my friends from junior and high school did coke. But this is before crack, so it was an interesting thing to see how the transition was where that drug was accessible to people in the 'hood."
For the rest of the storylines, Singleton said he relied mostly on first-hand accounts and oral histories — especially for the sections about the CIA's involvement in the crack epidemic, about which there is very little information available in the public record. "There are people that lived this stuff," the filmmaker said at ATX. "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."
While Singleton himself served as a "consultant" of sorts on the South Central portions of the show, he also revealed his other sources at the show's Television Critics Association panel last January. According to Deadline's report on the panel, Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez (a former addict and gang member) consulted on the East L.A. storylines, while the CIA plot was informed by conversations with the same sources The Americans showrunners use for their series.
One thing all the sources agreed on was the widespread devastation the epidemic left in its wake. "People described the period like a bomb being dropped," Dave Andron, the Justified writer who was brought on to serve as Snowfall's showrunner, said at the TCA panel. "If you went to South Central [before the crack epidemic], there weren't any bars on windows; there were less fences," Singleton reminisced. Then, "all of a sudden people who had no money had access to capital. They didn't care if they brought death to the neighborhood."
As Snowfall star Damson Idris says in the show's First Look promo (above): "We're not filming a documentary, but you will be educated." And for Singleton, there's a personal stake in educating the public about this particular story. "Drugs devastated a generation," he lamented in his aforementioned interview with The Guardian. "It gave me something to write about… but I had to survive it first."