As a kid growing up in Harlem, “Snowfall” actor Amin Joseph remembers seeing rumblings of what would grow into the crack cocaine epidemic: parks and school yards that had become places where people would do or sell drugs.
This wasn’t something that hit him until years later. Yes, he participated in jokes about people being “crackheads” and was surrounded by Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign — but Joseph said he wasn’t cognizant. Even when he stepped on a crack pipe when walking home from school, he didn’t think much of it.
“I do remember those times when I wasn’t aware,” he told TheWrap. “We were not really understanding the ramifications of what the drug was doing to our community. Looking back on it in hindsight is really terrible.”
In a way, the younger Joseph is similar to his character Jerome Saint in the FX show “Snowfall,” although Jerome doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight.
In the series, John Singleton (“Boyz n the Hood”) tackles the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s through the eyes of people that would’ve lived through it. One of those characters is Jerome Saint — played by Joseph — who is an ex-felon and small-time drug dealer who gets pulled into the world of drug dealing after his nephew Franklin (Damson Idris) decides to start selling the drug in South Central Los Angeles.
Unlike Franklin, who quickly establishes himself as an enthusiastic entrepreneurial genius, Jerome is comfortable dealing pot to people in his neighborhood. He rocks a Jheri Curl (Joseph calls the hairdo Sheila), lifts weights in his yard, and listens to funk music. To him, it’s less about rising to the top of a drug cartel or becoming a millionaire and more about living a life that he’s comfortable with. This is all before it gets turned upside down by Franklin and his romantic partner Louie.
“The character isn’t really aware of the bigger ramifications,” Joseph said.”I kind of like that about the character. In a way he’s between his four squares of the corner. That’s where his kingdom is. He’s looking to control what he can.”
Before “Snowfall” is set, crack and cocaine were mostly consumed by the rich. However, when sellers began distilling it into a smokeable form, it became cheaper and easier to produce. This allowed it to reach, and profoundly shake up, a whole new clientele. Its effects on lower-income communities like LA, New York and Miami are still being felt today, with some of those areas still decimated by the increases in crime. People of color are still getting incarcerated more harshly for possessing crack thanks to the panic that arose following its widespread distribution.
The significance of works like “Snowfall” is how it focuses on these events — whether they show a good side of American history or not. The crack epidemic is a sore spot in that history thanks to all the harm it did to mostly communities of color. However, discussions concerning trying to fix those problems or acknowledging the negative impact the government had have been erased.
“Snowfall” is an example of how you can tell an American history story without having to tone down that criticism. It doesn’t place the blame on any one group, but it doesn’t hold back.
“We should be telling or stories in a way that we don’t have to throw out all our patriotism,” Joseph said, “but at the same time we can’t, for lack of a better term, whitewash some of the cup stains.”
“I think that we realize there is a great divide in America right now because the telling of our history is slanted,”he continued. “Sometimes we hide some of the more shameful parts of our country’s past.”
Taking into account what came about because of the crack cocaine epidemic then is more important to “Snowfall” than where the drug came from. The most fascinating stories from the first few episodes are about normal people who get caught up in something larger than themselves. It’s another piece of work from Singleton, who made a name for himself in the 1990s with “Boyz in the Hood” and other films that represented the people and socioeconomic issues that affected South Central.
“Snowfall,” which draws a lot from Singleton’s youth, is deeply rooted in the time period and it was important from Joseph to understand that to get into his character.
Like, super important. Even Singleton said so.
“I was getting mic’d up and John walks up to me and says ‘hey man I know that you’re from NY and everything, this is South Central bro… this is my neighborhood, this is where I’m from. You can’t make me look bad,” Joseph recalled from one of his first days on set.
Singleton wasn’t being harsh though, just straightforward.
Joseph looked up everything he could about the time period to try and get into his character. He listened to the music, tried to figure out what Jerome’s favorite movie would be, what politics would be on his radar, and even what football team he’d be a fan of.
“He was always really instrumental in letting us know the time period,” he continued. “That gives an actor a lot to pull from.”
Plus, it gives the character more depth, even if it’s not something the audience would see. And adding dimension to a character in “Snowfall” is the whole point.
“I think that hopefully the show can encompass a lot of that and the viewer can see some of the humanity… not sensationalize the next drug dealer,” Joseph said.