A common preconception among the uninitiated among us who live outside of the Hollywood spectrum is that those who grasp the brass ring enjoy these rewards only by sleeping their way to the top. Now currently riding the crest of FX’s hit television series “Snowfall,” Gary Phillips, a writer on the series, credits his current success due to sheer perseverance, stating that (to the best of his knowledge) he has never been intimate with anyone of substantial stature in the entertainment biz.
“Snowfall” chronicles the assault of crack cocaine on Los Angeles, a historical fact with repercussions still impacting the city today. The narrative is abetted by the input of storytellers with personal ties to L.A., including (deceased) co-creator John Singleton and Phillips himself.
Drawing on his roots
“As a crime fiction writer and native Angeleno, I think it’s okay to have a biased point of view. My task is when I bring a character on ‘stage,’ be they a Korean grandmother or 16-year-old Latinx kid into heavy metal, I try to make them as dimensional as possible.”
—Mystery writer Gary Phillips
The fruits of his labor are the result of decades of churning out literature shaped by the comics, detective noir, and pulp fiction he devoured during his South Los Angeles upbringing. His coming of age preceded the events upon which “Snowfall” is based, but like all adolescent passages, it was not without its hazards. During the endless house parties around which his teen social culture revolved, he religiously refrained from sampling the joints being offered, fearful that he’d freak out from one laced with Phencyclidine, variously known as PCP, angel dust, embalming fluid, etc., sold in nearby “Sherm Alley” behind Santa Barbara Street (née Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.).
His youthful curiosity was blunted by urban legends and rumors about people freaking out on laced cigarettes potent enough to sedate elephants and horses.
Like much of the African-American citizenry in “La-La Land,” he shares the same roots as the character who inhabits “Snowfall.” “Transplants from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Mexico and later places like El Salvador provided rich stories and situations,” for the fiction he later penned.
His first serious stab at storytelling was sparked by the 1992 rebellion resulting in “Violent Spring” two years later. A 272-page yarn centering on the murder of a Korean store owner, it was “optioned” by HBO, (a process in which the creator is given a sum of money in exchange for the opportunity to develop an idea into a narrative suitable for the public). This launched a literary career focused on the mantra of publishing in his words “…crime fiction with a political edge” reflecting on his past as an activist, community organizer, and concerned citizen about anything impacting the City of Angels.
By his estimates, Phillips had seven or eight projects involving books, graphic novels, and short stories “optioned” over the following decades. They all languished in “development hell (media industry parlance for ideas that go through the processing stage), but never making it to the final production phase.
During this time, he made the acquaintance of John Singleton during a series of community panels, writers conferences, etc. This segued into an interview with Singleton, showrunner Dave Andron, and co-creator Eric Amadio, which in turn earned him a berth in the writer’s room in time for season three.
“…now in my Golden Years, this is the first time I’ve worked as a staff writer in TV,” Phillips said. (At this writing, “Culprits” an anthology of short stories focusing on individual criminals who pull off a heist originally set in Texas, and written with fellow crime scribe Richard Brewer, has been optioned by a United Kingdom company. Contractually, they have no input on its further development and will have to console themselves with a paycheck).
Phillips sums up his current duties thusly:
“Executive story editor denotes my three years on the show. Along with everyone else in our virtual writer’s room I pitch/discuss ideas on our characters and plots as we shape the overall story arcs as well as outlining what happens episode to episode.”
Curiously, he has little recollection of people from his youth who bear similarities to those he and his fellow scribes craft for prime time audiences-with one exception.
“Franklin’s Uncle Jerome who reminds me in some ways of my Uncle Sam-Sammy Phillips, my Dad’s younger brother.”
Aside from a sizable (and steady) paycheck, he misses the freedom and luxury of the print format.
“In a book, you have all the real estate you need to tell your story. In a script, your dialogue has to be honed down and clear and your narrative passages terse.”
Writing on life experiences (or not)
“No, you don’t have to have first-person experiences to write about a subject or character. You can write anything you can get away with.”
A prime example of crafting a believable tale from non-native experiences is his most recent novel “Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem” (Nov. 17, 2020, Agora Books). A 320- page thriller featuring real-life explorer Matthew Henson, who helped Robert Peary conquer the North Pole, it re-imagines this heroic figure in the 1930s Harlem Renaissance where he embarks upon an Indiana Jones-like adventure to foil gangster Dutch Schultz from kidnapping the daughter of a local spiritual healer.
Presently, in these pandemic-phobic times, Phillips interacts via Zoom technology with a staff largely made up of people of color, including celebrated mystery writer and fellow L.A. native Walter Mosley. Much has been made of the similarities between “Snowfall” and the real-life history of “Freeway” Ricky Ross and the narco-empire he (allegedly) erected with the assistance of the Central Intelligence Agency.
For the fictional narrative’s sake, real characters have morphed into fictional manifestations:
Protagonist Franklin Saint (British-Nigerian actor Damson Idris) is a scholastically competent collegiate before his academic career imploded and he was sucked back into the streets of his old neighborhood and the beginning of his loss of innocence. Real-life kingpin Ricky Donnell Ross was an illiterate product of the LAUSD who learned to read during the incarcerations he endured following his drug convictions.
Franklin’s illicit endeavors are undone through a newspaper article written by Japanese American Irene Abe (Suzy Nakamura), a (fictional) homegrown investigative reporter whose roots (and emotional loyalties) tie her to South Central.
The actual whistleblower, Caucasian Gary Webb, was a military brat whose journalism career starred in Kentucky and Ohio before he landed in the Bay Area and the story that made his career (and dismantled his life).
In the show, Franklin has a close (if uneven) relationship with his CIA handler Teddy MacDonald (portrayed by Carter Hudson), while the real Ricky Ross allegedly worked through Nicaraguan intermediaries like Oscar Danilo Blandón.
Fictional works that use the subtitle “based on” nearly always bring with them a fair amount of controversy, as those even remotely involved are quick to voice their disagreements with the depiction of past events. The better application here might be “inspired by,” especially since it almost certainly is influenced by the childhood memories of its native-born creatives.
The real Ricky Ross was originally recruited to act as a consultant on “Snowfall,” a negotiation that led to a falling out between him and Singleton. Even after John Singleton’s death, Ross reportedly remains upset with the depiction being screened on the airways. Hopefully, Ross will be given a platform to air his grievances with the telecast of this landmark intersection of drugs, race, and the US justice system.