The early 1980s and the introduction of crack cocaine to Los Angeles is the backdrop of FX’s newest drama “Snowfall.” It’s also a period wrought with conflicting histories. Creators John Singleton and Dave Andron tried to get past those inconsistencies by meticulously drawing from the real life experiences of people who were there and people who have studied the era.
“There’s so much material and so many theories on who brought [crack cocaine] and how it came in. So we kind of had to pick a lane and just go,” Andron said at a screening of the pilot episode and Q&A session with the cast at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles Tuesday night. “We just dug in and got consultants and did the research to make sure we had the CIA world feeling authentic, and the world of East L.A. as well.”
After the first episode, it seems clear that the “lane” the creators chose subscribes to the theory that the CIA had a hand in the L.A. crack cocaine epidemic. One of three major intertwined story lines follows Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), a CIA officer who begs his superiors to let him in on a mission involving selling crack to help fund Contra rebels.
“There’s an endless library of literature on the history of the CIA and the way they’ve been quietly affecting geo-politics for last 60 years,” Hudson said at the Q&A. But he prepared for the role by learning more about what it was like to actually live in a CIA family.
“We also had a writer who was in the writers’ room who grew up in a CIA family. Both of her parents were officers and she didn’t find out until she was 15,” he said. “I got to have lunch with her when we first started, and she was able to talk with me about the more helpful stuff like, ‘what’s breakfast like in a CIA household?’ Or like, ‘how do you tell your kids about that?'”
The other two major storylines follow Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), a well-meaning weed dealer who graduates to selling cocaine, and Lucia Villanueva and her cousin Pedro Nava (Emily Rios and Filipe Valle Costa), two dealers who work with Teddy of the CIA.
Singleton was drawn to this period because “it’s embedded in my brain as a time in my life that a lot of things changed. Really, it’s because of that incident when crack hit the neighborhood,” he said at the Q&A. “You’ll see in [the] pilot episode, this is before … it’s kind of like L.A. ghetto fabulous. It’s beautiful, and the Spanish-style homes and the palm trees, kids playing in the neighborhoods — but it’s all going to change.”
It was also a period where events have been widely disputed. In 1996, San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb released a series of articles called “Dark Alliance: The Story Behind The Crack Explosion,” that asserted the CIA helped orchestrate sales of cocaine to the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The profits of those drug deals then went to help fund a guerrilla army in Latin America.
The CIA immediately gave backlash to Webb’s investigation, and it became a public relations “nightmare” for the agency. The CIA and prominent newspapers worked together to poke holes into Webb’s version of events, and Webb fell from being a well-respected journalist to a discredited one. He wrote a book in 2002, “Into the Buzzsaw,” about this experience, before he died two years later at the age of 49. His death was determined a suicide.
“I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests,” Webb wrote in the book. “And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.”
Newspapers like the L.A. Times and Washington Post have been ruthless in their coverage of Webb and the crack cocaine epidemic. In 1996, the Times said definitively, “The crack epidemic in Los Angeles followed no blueprint or master plan. It was not orchestrated by the Contras or the CIA or any single drug ring.” And after a movie starring Jeremy Renner (“Kill the Messenger”) came out in 2014, the Washington Post ran an article with the headline, “Gary Webb was no journalism hero, despite what ‘Kill the Messenger’ says.”
But “Snowfall” is more concerned with the impact that crack had on L.A. after it arrived in the early ’80s and the story of how it effected the black community in Los Angeles as a whole. Whether or not the CIA helped or didn’t help crack arrive — arrive it did, and Singleton hopes the audience will see the impact it had.
“It was a very conscious choice to start in South Central before crack landed,” Andron added. “And we all kind of know the way that ended up, but why did it end up the way it did, why was it allowed — if you wanna use that word — to continue, like why did it blow up, why was it so unchecked, why were the laws against crack cocaine so much more strict than powder cocaine? I mean I think we’re going to get into all that s— ’cause it feels like it needs to be talked about and it feels like are the things that we’re still dealing with today.”
The creators were also careful to listen to people in the neighborhoods where they filmed. “Nothing that we could try to make up would be better than the folks that really lived this stuff,” he said.
“Snowfall” premieres on Wednesday, July 5 on FX.