‘Snowfall’ was a masterclass in Black storytelling

OPINION: “Snowfall,” which ended Wednesday night after a six-season run, was unflinching in how it showed the truth about being Black in America.

Damson Idris as Franklin Saint in "Snowfall." (Ray MIcksaw/FX.)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

“Snowfall” has come to an end.

Created in part by the late John Singleton, the show, which ended Wednesday night after six seasons, had an intriguing premise. It asked what would happen if a relatively good Black kid from South Central Los Angeles — much like the little boys at the beginning of Singleton’s classic film “Boyz n the Hood” — was turned into a monster by America?

For many critics, the melodramatic elements of the show overshadowed a very important fact that the FX series tried to dramatize: that the CIA was largely responsible for drugs getting into the Black community. 

For all the commercials where Nancy Reagan implored us to “Just Say No,” for every D.A.R.E. classroom session led by police officers in the ’80s and ’90s, the unspoken truth behind it all was that the U.S. government allowed the flood of crack cocaine into Black communities — and “Snowfall” captured the effects of that truth.

“Snowfall” was unflinching in how it showed the truth about being Black in America. For me, the show was a revelation. It helped me understand my uncle, who I thought, for many years, was crazy because he blamed everything on “the white man.”

John Ware, my father’s brother, lived in a small house on what Black folks in Oklahoma City called “the Eastside.” Really it was a five-mile area on the northeast side of the city where you would find a preponderance of soul food restaurants, cannabis dispensaries and liquor stores. But if you went to the home of the Thunder and asked for directions to the eastside, every Black person who preferred sweet potato pie to pumpkin pie would point you in the right direction. 

White folks would have no idea what the hell you were talking about. 

Uncle Johnny said Black folks had bad credit because the white man would not give people whose skin is kissed by the sun the same access to capital as white folks. He also asserted that the Federal Bureau of Investigation destroyed the Black Panther Party because the party was getting too popular and thereby too dangerous. And he was convinced that white lawmakers and white banks colluded to redline Black neighborhoods because the white man did not want “niggas to live next do’ to his daughters.”

At the time, I found his conspiracy theories fantastical, but Uncle Johnny was convinced he was right. I now see that he wasn’t wrong.

 History is clear that Black folks were redlined and denied credit for racial reasons. It is also clear that the FBI was involved in undermining and dismantling the Black Panther Party. So, while my uncle was incorrect in his assessment that there was a singular white man behind all these social ills, he was right to think that something nefarious was going on. 

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a conspiracy theory is “the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties; specifically: a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event.”

My uncle was inclined to think this way because to be Black in America was to be a living, breathing, logical end of a conspiracy.

“Snowfall” put the reason for my uncle’s feelings onscreen. It showed us why so many Black folks in this country do not trust the government and why some, long before Colin Kaepernick, decided not to stand for the national anthem. 

Many people in my family fought in the military. My grandfather fought in World War II as an Army infantryman; my uncle was in the Navy during the Vietnam War; and my aunt joined the U.S. Air Force. They all served their country with pride. They were all honorably discharged. None of them balked at the decision of many in the country to not stand for the national anthem. Yes, they all served this country with pride, but once their service was over, they saw that they were still treated like second-class citizens. 

It is a miracle that “Snowfall” even exists. I sat with my mouth agape as I watched the first episode. 

Here we have a show built on the premise that the U.S. government was not only actively involved in the drug trade but was pushing drugs into the Black community thereby devastating families with addiction and violence. It also showed how this resulted in the militarization of the police, which set the stage for the killing of Black men, women and children at the hands of the boys in blue. And this was all done while white folks on the show, reflecting the ideas of white Americans at the time, talked about Black people as if they were animals.

I cannot believe this show was greenlit. It must have been pitched during Black History Month.  

In the penultimate episode of the series, Cissy, the mother of our antihero Franklin Saint, asks Teddy, the CIA agent responsible for most of the drugs in South Central, a question we have all wanted an answer to. 

She asks, “Do you even feel badly about any of this … decimating an entire community?” 

Teddy responded by blaming the drug users who were addicted to the product. He said the violence would not have happened if the drug dealers on the corner had not been greedy. He concluded that Cissy was also at fault because she looked the other way while her son made millions of dollars off cocaine. 

While Teddy is right, he is also wrong. It never dawns on him that none of the things he mentioned would have happened if he had not brought drugs into the community in the first place. 

Teddy was the perfect narrative representative for America. Death followed in his wake, but he was oblivious to how he caused it.

“Snowfall” was a masterclass in Black storytelling. It will be remembered as not just a good show but an important one. 

Correction, April 20, 2023, 8:14 p.m.: An earlier version of this story named the incorrect neighborhood where “Snowfall” took place. The show was set in South Central Los Angeles.

Lawrence Ware is a teaching assistant professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University and co-director of the Center for Africana Studies.

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