LOS ANGELES — John Singleton is back in South Central — but the neighborhood in the opening scenes of “Snowfall” feels a world away from the one viewers toured in his 1991 breakthrough film, “Boyz N the Hood.”
The series, premiering Wednesday on FX, opens in the summer of 1983. The infectious joy of Ronnie Hudson’s “West Coast Poplock” fills the air as the residents gossip from their porches and kids sprint toward an ice cream truck. Franklin Saint, the young night manager at a local store, lectures a couple of would-be truants who have lifted Ring Pop treats from the truck and makes them return them. Within a few days, he will be dealing cocaine and his stamping grounds will be one step closer to becoming a war zone.
“One of the things we try to do at the start of the season is show how different South Central was then,” said Singleton, whose credits include “Shaft” and “2 Fast 2 Furious.” “There were no bars on the windows, less fences. All that happens when this whole ‘snowfall,’ as we call it, pervades the neighborhood. People change, families change, alliances change. Everything becomes more dangerous.”
Singleton made this same observation in “Boyz,” which covered a period from 1984 and 1991 and made him, at 24, the youngest person ever to get an Oscar nomination for best director. Its insight affected viewers from around the world.
“The first time I watched it, I was too young. Must have been 10 or 11,” said the British-born Damson Idris, who plays Saint. “I was this guy from London who didn’t know anything about America. I thought it was, like, Brad Pitt. Just Hollywood. And then I saw this whole different side to it.”
Singleton and his team, which included novelist Walter Mosley (“Devil in a Blue Dress”) and L.A. Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez as consultants, aren’t just pressing “repeat.” The unflinching drama, which has been picked up for 10 episodes, goes even deeper in an attempt to show how quickly racism, poverty and greed can infect a community.
The wider palette allows for more varying perspectives. In addition to Saint, the story is told through the eyes of a Mexican wrestler (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) so desperate to feel like part of a family that he hooks up with thugs who would kill their own father, and a CIA operative (Carter Hudson) who claims that using the cocaine trade to fund Nicaraguan Contras is his patriotic duty.
There are moments of levity — an eccentric, potbellied drug lord celebrates a major score by turning his mansion’s living room into a bowling alley with Champagne bottles as pins — but make no mistake: This is a Shakespearean tragedy.
Movies used to explore this kind of territory on a regular basis back when “Boyz” premiered. These days, unless Iron Man bothers to stop by, it’s a rarity. Perhaps that explains why Singleton has shifted his focus to TV. Despite his celebrated debut, he has directed only two feature films in the past 12 years. In just the past six months, he also shepherded ABC’s “L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later” and BET’s cop drama “Rebel.” John Ridley, another black filmmaker just two years older than Singleton, has also shifted most of his focus to television, despite winning an Oscar just a few years ago for his “12 Years a Slave” screenplay.
My kids are like, ‘How come you’re not doing ‘Transformers’? How come you’re not doing something that’s fun?’ ” Ridley told Variety magazine this past April. “I would love to have a franchise. I’d love to have something that earned out. My kids are proud of the things I do, but it’s not like they’re waiting for ‘American Crime’; they’re at that age where they’re waiting for the Marvels and the ‘Star Wars.’ “
Yes, but in its three years on the air, “American Crime” helped spark deep, important conversations. “Snowfall” will likely do the same.