Like the rest of the world, Damson Idris thought he’d only be away from the set of “Snowfall” for about two weeks when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. They’d only shot up to about Episode 4 when they took a hiatus last March.
When he stepped back onto the set seven months later, the world’s entire energy and way of being had shifted in a major way. The pandemic had taken more than 200,000 American lives at that point, of which a disproportionate number were Black and brown. The Black Lives Matter rallying cry had grown louder and the movement extended to parts of the world it had never seen.
It seemed everything had changed for Idris, too.
The British actor, who stars as lead protagonist and kingpin Franklin Saint in the hit FX series “Snowfall,” was questioning who he was outside of acting. He did plenty of introspection and soul-searching. And he marched in the streets for Black lives. What he found was different layers of himself as an actor, activist and man. He brought all of that to the set as they filmed the second half of Season 4.
“We came back with a different sense of self-confidence and truly cherishing our heritage, our culture, and what we’re trying to achieve in this industry,” Idris told HuffPost.
“And then to weld it together with regards to racial stereotypes, in regards to police brutality, and to come back and see the script change because of that, to see the costumes change because of that, see the overall focus change because of that — I think that’s the reason why this season is standing out, and already, people are starting to realize something special is brewing,” the actor said.
On top of coping with the world’s devastating changes, Season 4 of the hour-long drama that follows the rise of the crack epidemic in 1980s Los Angeles is the first without John Singleton’s physical presence. Singleton, who co-created, directed and executive-produced “Snowfall,” was only 51 when he died after having a stroke in April 2019.
Idris said he and his colleagues’ focus this season was to make Singleton proud by executing his vision. They honored him on set by verbalizing a grounding reminder: “For John.”
During his life, Singleton contributed culturally and historically significant work through his visionary and humanizing depictions of Black life on screen, including “Poetic Justice” and “Boyz n the Hood,” for which he became the youngest person to earn a Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards.
As Singleton’s final project, “Snowfall” — which the filmmaker dubbed “ghetto Game of Thrones” — flips how America was conditioned to view the crack epidemic on its head. Through an action-filled work of fiction, the storylines encourage the audience to understand the pathology and motives of the hardest-hit communities.
I want viewers to ask the question, ‘Who really is the villain?’ I want viewers to see crack cocaine as a health crisis just as opioids is seen as a health crisis today and not a criminal one.
Walter Mosley, the show’s executive producer and a National Book Award recipient, told HuffPost that he hopes audiences see the contrast between how Black people battling drug addiction in the ’80s were treated compared to white people dealing with the opioid crisis today.
“Now you have, in other communities, people strung out on heroin; now it’s a disease,” Mosley said. “There was heroin in the Black community and everybody thought, ‘Look, they need to go to prison forever.’ I mean, even under [former President Bill] Clinton, they came up with that thing that if you get busted for peddling any of the drugs, you get life without possibility of parole.”
“We got 50,000 people today serving life without possibility of parole, and these are not murderers, child molesters, et cetera,” he added. “These are just people who they were dealing speed because how else were they going to make money? I think that you can look at it and have a deeper understanding of yourself and your culture.”
“Snowfall” Season 4 explores the beginning of former President Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. Franklin’s back is against the wall as violence increases in his community: He’s fighting to maintain the good conscience he has left while planning his escape from the drug game without losing his riches or his loved ones.
Idris’ own education about the crack epidemic influenced what he’s been able to bring to the role each season. Growing up in Peckham, London, he wasn’t unfamiliar with crack, but playing this part has opened his eyes to just how devastating it was for Black America.
“He wouldn’t get into the selling of crack cocaine to necessarily have flashy stuff and then incite violence,” Idris said of his character. “They put him to it to better their situations because they had no other means due to the system that they were in. And that system then created something for them, which was further going to destroy them, but they didn’t even realize. That’s what I want viewers to take away.”
“I want viewers to ask the question, ‘Who really is the villain?’” he said. “I want viewers to see crack cocaine as a health crisis just as opioids is seen as a health crisis today, and not a criminal one. There are the people we needed to help, and that help wasn’t provided for them.”
Idris praised how fully fleshed-out Franklin is, showing remorse and rooted in ethics and morality. But as he begins to find out in Season 4, the crack epidemic is starting to get ahead of him in the worst way. “That’s the sadness of the season,” he lamented. But for all those complex reasons and more, Idris dubs the series “the greatest show in the world.”
In addition to shaking up social preconceptions, Singleton always offered new talent a chance to shine when the rest of Hollywood played gatekeeper. He gave a 23-year-old Idris his first big break as the lead of “Snowfall” when he had only a few acting credits under his belt.
Idris said Singleton was a mentor and champion for him and reminded him that “you always have a home as long as you represent your Blackness.”
“Singleton ardently nurtured that,” he said. “This industry is difficult because, especially during the pandemic, it’s really hard to find someone who, right out the gate, as soon as you come to Hollywood, takes you under their wing. You often have to work really hard and prove that you’re great before people actually want to say, ’OK, I’ll let you roll with me now.’ But Singleton wasn’t like that. Singleton liked taking people from when they’re still in the soil and watering them and making them grow into beautiful flowers.”
Mosley said Singleton did the same for him. “Snowfall” was his first foray into writing for television. Singleton reached out to him six years ago to ask if he’d be interested in being in the writers room. Mosley hesitated but agreed, noting that he hadn’t ever been in a TV writing room prior. That didn’t matter to Singleton, who trusted his vision. Now Mosley is an executive producer on the show and working on adapting his Easy Rawlins novels into a series. (“Devil In A Blue Dress,” which was adapted into a 1995 thriller starring Denzel Washington, was Mosley’s first published novel.)
Mosley said Singleton did that for others, too. He told HuffPost that he had asked one woman on set how she got her job on the show. Singleton had run into her in the neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles and she told him that she had just gotten out of prison and was having difficulties finding a job. He hired her on the crew, and she’s been working on the show since, according to Mosley.
“These people, the only thing they want to do is make the best possible show they can, because finally, they get to work every day, which is great, but also, it builds a career for them,” Mosley said of the cast and crew.
He had special praise for Idris. “Damson is great. Damson is a wonderful actor, and he’s also a star. I mean, he has star quality. He has both of those things going for him, which is wonderful. If I was his age, I don’t know if I’d be able to do what he’s doing. You can get lost in that stuff, but he’s really serious. He’s on point.”
Mosley, Idris and the entire cast and crew wield a hot torch that Singleton lit. In many ways, Idris wants to carry on his legacy on and off the set of “Snowfall.” He’s currently doing more production and has a taste for directing, though he’d want to go back to school for that since he takes it very seriously. He also wants to help nurture young talent, as his late mentor did for him.
He and Mosley agree that Singleton would be proud of this season.
“Everything we do is for John,” Idris said. “Every success, every blessing, every stride is for John. And ‘Snowfall’ was definitely his baby. It was the last of his legacy, but his legacy is shining. And, again, he’s looking down on us proud.”
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