With ‘Snowfall,’ John Singleton’s final gift to us was his greatest — Andscape
Warning: This article contains spoilers about the finale of Snowfall.
John Singleton’s Snowfall aired its last episode Wednesday night, and the fate that befalls its main character, Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), is something that will likely be discussed for years to come.
Amin Joseph, who played Jerome Saint on the FX series, said it best. “We showed up as a cast and crew, through the pandemic, through hell and high water, and we showed up each season committed to John Singleton’s legacy and to finishing strong, and I feel like that’s what we did.
“We set out to tell a complete story,” he added, “and we were able to complete it, and to have completion in television is amazing.”
For six seasons, Snowfall was like a novel we tuned into each week. We were drawn in deeper to the story of Franklin Saint and everyone he knew. And the series had a beginning, a middle, and an end — something that is rare in television, particularly these days. A lot of shows get canceled before they get to tell the full story, but Snowfall went out on its own terms, and by the end, we know the fate of every character we were introduced to in the first episode.
In the finale, we watched as Franklin became part of the same cycle of poverty and addiction he had sentenced so many others to with his quest for money and power in the drug game. He spent the first five seasons of this series flooding the streets of his own neighborhood with crack, getting everyone — including his childhood sweetheart Mel (Reign Edwards) and Wanda (Gail Bean), the girlfriend of his best friend — addicted while simultaneously contributing to the increase in crime and narcotics on the streets of South Central Los Angeles.
So there was poetic justice in watching a drunken, dirty, disheveled, and disoriented Franklin walk down the same street we initially met him on six seasons ago. And while we may not have wanted to see it end that way for him, we also understand that there are very few fairy-tale endings for drug dealers, and in this instance, Franklin got the karma his actions deserved.
Snowfall is certainly not the first show to tell the story of drug dealers, but the way it handled its subject matter is what sets it apart from shows such as The Wire and Breaking Bad, two of the best to do it. The Wire specifically featured prominent Black characters, but the main protagonist was a white cop. Breaking Bad similarly focused on a white protagonist.
Snowfall is unflinchingly and unapologetically Black in its storytelling, and writer and producer Cheo Hodari Coker credits Singleton, who died in 2019, for that.
“The one thing that I think was important to John is that it reflect a certain reality, a certain soul — that deep, deep Blackness that comes from a place and a texture that only we know and understand,” Coker said, adding that Singleton wanted to show the ambition of kids from the ’hood and how the drugs, which they didn’t import, dropped into their neighborhood “and all of a sudden they have the opportunity to make money at a time when money was everything.”
Over the course of the show, we see the fallout from Franklin’s rise as the neighborhoods in LA deteriorate all around him. We watch crack take over. We watch it ruin lives. We watch it destroy Black people.
Novelist Walter Mosley, a producer and writer on Snowfall, believes the series resonates with a wide audience because everyone can relate to it.
“Whether you’re in Los Angeles, or Atlanta, or D.C. or New York or Miami, crack hit everybody, and it hit them really hard, and something about the money made it quasi-legal,” Mosley said.
Coker expressed a similar belief about money, the drug game, and the way people perceive Franklin Saint as a character.
“Everything that everyone loved about Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, you also initially love about Franklin Saint. It’s capitalism and ambition run amok,” Coker said.
“This is the story about how crack began,” Joseph said. “This is the story of how our communities were affected. This is a story about government involvement, and these characters that are fictional represent souls that were in our community — grandmothers that are still alive today. Grandfathers. A community that had to heal its own while being ravaged.”
At the end of Boyz n the Hood, Doughboy, played by Ice Cube, famously says, “Either they don’t know, they don’t show, or they don’t care about what’s going on in the ’hood.”
He grew up in South Central and understood what life was like for people who lived south of the 10 freeway and east of Crenshaw Boulevard. And the city was an integral part of his work.
“He was building a universe,” said Coker, who created Marvel’s Luke Cage for Netflix and was also a close friend of Singleton’s. “The same way Quentin Tarantino’s movies are interlinked and can be considered a universe, or the same way that Kevin Feige built the Marvel Cinematic Universe, John did the same thing because Baby Boy and Boyz n the Hood are linked, and to a certain extent, Snowfall is almost like an expansion of that universe.”
There are many people who believe Snowfall is based solely on the life of “Freeway” Ricky Ross, a well-known LA drug dealer who had ties to the CIA. But Coker said Singleton was telling a much larger story.
“Snowfall is an amalgamation of a lot of things. There’s a lot of reality in it because coming from [Singleton’s] neighborhood and seeing things happening in real time — there are memories and texture, and that comes from a real place. At the same time, you know he’s fictionalizing a lot of things. A lot of people want to speculate and say he based it on Freeway Ricky Ross, but Ross’ story went entirely differently,” Coker said.
“Snowfall is kind of an amalgam of several people, including Ricky Ross, Michael “Harry-O” Harris, Brian “Waterhead Bo” Bennett, and Thomas “Tootie” Reese,” he added.
When we met Franklin in Season One it’s 1983, and things looked much brighter and different back then for 19-year-old “Saint,” as his friends call him. He had potential. He could have been something. He could have chosen an entirely different path for his life.
He had seen some amount of struggle, though. He lived with his mother Cissy Saint (Michael Hyatt), who was a single parent. His father, Alton Williams (Kevin Carroll) is an alcoholic living on the streets, and so Franklin helps make the ends meet by working part time in a neighborhood store and selling weed on the side for his Uncle Jerome.
It’s relatively light work compared with what he eventually falls into, and he stumbles into the cocaine business after a chance meeting with Israeli drug lord Avi (Alon Aboutboul), who dumps a brick of cocaine on Franklin and gives him one day to sell it.
After unsuccessfully petitioning his Uncle Jerome for help moving the product, he is introduced to club owner Claudia (Judith Scott) by Jerome’s girlfriend Louie (Angela Lewis), and it is that meeting that seals Franklin’s fate. Although he tries to walk away from selling drugs at one point in the beginning, he eventually decides to get back into it. This, of course, is the real beginning, and it leads to everything that happens after, including Franklin’s unhappy ending.
Franklin’s involvement with CIA agent Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson) and Teddy’s involvement with the Iran-Contra affair, is a large part of the story — but it is not the main story.
It serves the purpose of telling us how and why the drugs got to South Central Los Angeles, but it doesn’t overshadow Franklin’s tragic tale, and that is a testament to what Singleton wanted and the talent in the Snowfall writers’ room. It’s also an example of Singleton’s commitment to the story he wanted to tell.
“There are a lot of things John had to fight for,” Coker said. “He fought so hard for the show to be what it is now. In the beginning there was kind of a lot of resistance about the sophistication of the show, of Franklin doing some of the things he was doing. The whole Teddy storyline — there was probably more of a network push for that as opposed to getting deep into the nuances of characters like Scully.”
Snowfall was able to give us the importance of the CIA backstory without it overshadowing the people we care about the most. And Teddy ended up being one of Snowfall’s most hated characters, and that is saying a lot considering Franklin Saint is right there. But fans continued rooting for Franklin to get it right, and because we were rooting for him, Teddy became the type of antagonist we loved rooting against.
“This is not a cops and robbers show, this is just a robbers show, and you have to love that,” Mosley said.
As much as we laud The Wire, it was at its core a police procedural, and as Mosley pointed out to me, the first person on the call sheet was a white man (Dominic West, who played detective Jimmy McNulty).
“I don’t have anything against white people, and I don’t have anything against them being on the call list, but if I’m going to do a show about Black life in any city, the first person on that call list has to be Black,” Mosley said.
Snowfall takes place over the course of seven years, with the first three years playing out over the entire series and the last four years taking place in the final episode.
That’s a lot of story to tell in an hour of television and a lot of character evolution to depict, but the show does it beautifully. Everyone changes, for better or for worse. Everyone is enticed by the money, and some come to the realization that it isn’t worth it faster than others.
Unfortunately for Franklin, he never reaches that realization — or maybe he does, but his pride won’t allow him to admit it or face it. It’s something Snowfall’s writers wrestled with.
Mosley said that they were constantly asking themselves: “Who is going to get out of this? Who is going to get out of this alive? Who is going to get out of this alive and be better?”
By the time we get to the end of the show, we know it’s not Franklin. He has lost everything — Teddy steals $73 million from him, kills his father, and Franklin’s mother goes to prison for killing Teddy. Uncle Jerome is dead. Louie is on the run. Veronique (Devyn Tyler), Franklin’s girlfriend and the mother of his child, has taken what’s left of his money and run off to raise their child on her own, away from the drugs, guns and violence that consume Franklin’s world.
Throughout the series, the point has been made that Franklin doesn’t drink or do any drugs — even when those around him are consuming both. The minute he takes his first sip of alcohol is the minute see the last of the Franklin Saint we came to know and love.
The final episode of the series is titled The Sins of the Father, and it’s apt, because Franklin becomes what his father formerly was — an addict living on the streets.
It is truly a full circle moment. Franklin became everything he worked so hard not to be. He’s broken and broke. He’s a recluse, living in squalor, and squatting in a house he can no longer afford to pay for and take care of.
By the time his best friend Leon (Isaiah John) finds him in the final moments of the episode, he is a lost cause, and we realize that only Leon and Wanda make it out alive and better as Mosley put it. Wanda leaves for Ghana at the beginning of the episode, and after a conversation with Cissy — who was like a mother to him as well — Leon joins her. When Leon comes back, he starts a legal clinic to help those who were negatively impacted by the crack epidemic.
Both Coker and Singleton’s son Maasai Singleton believe Singleton would have loved how the show turned out.
“The most important thing to remember about my dad is to remember him as a person and remember as an artist,” Maasai Singleton, who worked in the camera department on Snowfall’s first two seasons, said. “The biggest legacy of my dad is not even one individual work, but all of the people who grew as a result of having him in their lives.
“There are many professionals all around Hollywood making their own works now who were either influenced by watching my dad’s works when they were growing up or many by being with him and being hired by him and being mentored by him,” he added.
Mosley agreed. “John Singleton was a great man. More than he was a genius, he was a great man. He was so good with us that when he left this world, we had all the information he could ever give us, and we could continue on making this show, bringing it to this place with these actors.”
In the final scenes of the series finale, Franklin and Leon walk down a South Central street, catching up, when they come across a movie being filmed. By the way the people are dressed (three boys are wearing clothing identical to what the childhood versions of Tre, Doughboy and Ricky), it is apparent that the movie is Boyz n the Hood, and the director with the glasses and the snapback baseball cap is Singleton.
It was a beautiful homage to the man who gave us this masterpiece. And it was another full circle moment.
Everyone may not be happy with the way things turned out on Snowfall for Franklin, but in the end, viewers will understand that this is the way it has to be.
Life is like a circle.
What goes around comes around, again and again.