Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Earnt that Bump: Felicia Pearson as Snoop

    I ended my post on The Wire noting that among its legacies is proving that mainstream media lacks for quality roles for African-American actors. Too many talented, memorable actors who portrayed vivid, beloved characters have gone on to far, far lesser roles, struggling to make their way in the acting game. Felicia Pearson, I noted, seemed to have found her way by turning her hustler skills to building a cottage industry around her own story. It seems, however, I may have spoken too soon.
    I envisioned this series some time ago, after writing a separate piece on The Wire, where I felt I was unable to fully pay tribute to the actors, a cadre of artists who never failed to entertain me, move me, or provoke thought. My first choice was Andre Royo as Bubbles, but events compel me to focus on Felicia Pearson, who brought a distinctive and singular presence playing a character based upon herself. Whatever happens next for Miss Pearson, her work as Felicia “Snoop” Pearson will remain. Spoilers for seasons 3 through 5 follow.
    Snoop first appears partway through season 3, a key player under the insurgent Marlo Stanfield. The typical Barksdale is Bodie—young, male, head shaved, fastidiously dressed in a hip hop style, he is a drug dealer who is easy to imagine. Comparatively, the Stanfield crew is a stranger breed. Chris, Marlo’s chief enforcer, is unadorned, dressed with military severity, with a shock of jagged hair, and at his side is Snoop—small and asexual and shapeless with tightly braided cornrows and boyish clothes, she could be a boy of 13 or a woman of 20, or anything between. She’s a chameleon. In her first major scene, disguised in civilian girl clothes, she fires on a Barksdale corner from point blank range, and nearly kills Poot, who has been around since episode 1. Later, her unassuming stature makes her the perfect spotter to uncover a Barksdale ambush. Embodied in Chris and Snoop, the Barksdales find themselves at war with an alien force—the crack baby’s babies Herc warned Poot about a few episodes earlier, a generation raised in the wreckage the Barksdales helped create.
    Season 4 opens with one of The Wire’s most iconic scenes, no less iconic for being Ms. Pearson’s first major scene, establishing Snoop as a full character. While looking for a new nail gun, Snoop is aided by a hardware store clerk. The clerk is helpful and casual, and seems to make no assumptions, while Snoop is forthcoming, and seems quite grateful for the assistance. Here, however, we learn that Snoop is very naive. Snoop drops stories of murders, much to the horror of the clerk, before handing him a stack of cash for the nail gun rather than paying up front—that’s simply how she’s used to doing business. Ms. Pearson invests Snoop with a lack of self-consciousness and a casual bearing throughout this scene—for lack of a better term, she is thoughtless, a stark contrast to a character like D’Angelo, who was always keenly aware of how he didn’t fit into legitimate society. She is, however, not malicious, indeed, she is grateful for the help, and even patient with the clerk, not challenging him on his unhip standards for quality automobiles.
    Soon Snoop will become an ominous herald of death—when she arrives, Chris is not far behind, and the neighborhood and viewer both rightly regard with terror—and over the two seasons that remain, she will commit many murders, but for me, her naivety is her defining trait, and it’s a very sad naivety. For Snoop, it seems the Game is all there is, and while many characters might claim that is the case, for Snoop it seems to be true. We only ever see her on the job. She doesn’t shoot hoops, takes classes, keep fish, play poker—she doesn’t even play checkers or chase tail. The Game is all there is for her, because she seems to have nothing else, quite literally. Chris decides they can flush out dealers from New York by asking about the local music scene, but Snoop is equally ignorant, and nearly kills a native who unfortunately identifies his favorite DJ as “that New York girl”. Later, it appears she hasn’t seen Boyz N the Hood. The entirety of her focus is on her job, her role. While I find that sad, Ms. Pearson chooses not to put any sort of wistfulness or melancholy into these moments—unlike D’Angelo, she doesn’t know what she doesn’t have, which just makes the character sadder.  
    Every character on The Wire, however, retains something human, no matter how compromised it may be. Snoop kills without a second thought—she and Chris may have the most bodies on them of all the show’s characters. She eulogizes her New York victims with “Where your Yankee pride now, you fucking bitches?” Despite her size and gender she becomes a feared figure in the drug trade, a credit to her savvy, her tossed-off viciousness, and the confidence with which she navigates her world. She is central in training the next generation in the ways of doing business. But she can still be shaken. When she witnesses Chris beat Michael’s step-father to death, she recoils, both horrified and confused. It’s not a murder committed with their ruthless efficiency, not enacted as a business transaction, and Ms. Pearson makes it apparent that Snoop doesn’t properly grasp what is happening. That moment is brief, though—Ms. Pearson doesn’t let Snoop linger there long. By the time Chris storms away, Snoops tough street veneer has been raised again.
    Snoop is quite literally a role only Ms. Pearson could play. The character was, indeed, written for her. Beyond that, it’s one that trades on her rhythms, instincts, presence, and her trademark squawk, creating one of the most memorable characters of the decade. Ms. Pearson balances Snoop’s terror with her charm. And she is charming—easy-going, confident, lively, funny, and sociable, she seems the only one able to make Chris laugh. At the same time, Ms. Pearson is able to invest the character with the necessary hardness and callousness. As charming as she can be, we never forget who she is.
As season 5 and the show itself comes to a close, so does Snoop. Tasked with killing Mike, she finds herself outwitted by her former student, and while she readily praises his skill, she is disgusted. She is not angry, or afraid, rather, she’s quite resigned. What bothers her is Mike’s bad faith in the Game—questioning, challenging, not following blindly, doing things Snoop would never dream of doing. She knows her place, and does not fight her fate. With a final little touch of vanity, she checks her hair, and is removed from the system that controls her entire identity. The Wire is built on circles, and inevitably the crack baby’s baby’s babies must rise.

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