Nine years after crack first hit New York City, the author-actor Ray Shell published the brilliant crack novel Iced, a first-person account told by the self-loathing addict Cornelius Washington Jr. The forty-four-year-old protagonist was once an upwardly mobile Columbia University scholarship student, fast-tracked to be a lawyer and a six-figure record executive, until a few deaths, disappointments, and major mistakes derailed his life. Cornelius becomes a slave to crack, falling into a hell that proves impossible to escape. Supported by his mother and his younger sister, Lorraine, who takes care of him despite her husband’s disdain, Cornelius forgets how to be independent. Lorraine makes sure the rent and other bills are paid, but she eventually relocates to California with her own growing family. Left to his own devices, Cornelius seems to relish in his irresponsibility. He makes one bad decision after another. “Reality fuckin’ hurts,” he declares early on.
Richard Price’s crack novel Clockers came out a year before Iced, but for all of its wonder, Price’s story was told from the perspective of the dealers and police, while Shell’s novel was about the victims. Shell was inspired to start writing the novel in 1990 after returning to the Pink Houses—the East New York housing projects where he’d lived until leaving for college twenty years before. Written in the form of an intense stream-of-consciousness journal, Iced recounts Cornelius’s “this me that useda be” past as we learn how he became the crack zombie of the book’s early nineties present.
While Iced has been out of print for years, the producer-director Lee Daniels (The Butler, Empire) recently bought the film rights. In a 2017 Hollywood Reporter interview, Daniels called the book a “tour de force” that was “brilliant, just brilliant.” He first optioned the book in 2008, with Lenny Kravitz rumored to be playing the lead, but Daniels wound up adapting Sapphire’s disturbing Push(he changed the name to Precious) instead. “Ten years ago, it was all about what Lee could get financing for. But now, with Lee’s relationship at Fox, he can do whatever he wants,” Shell told me during a phone interview in January. An American who has lived in London since the early eighties, the soft-spoken Shell had performed his one-man musical Phoenix at Joe’s Pub in New York City a few days before.
Initially, the filmmaker considered making a ten-part miniseries but decided that a single feature would better suit the material. “There are things we can do with a feature that we would not be able to do in a series,” Shell says. If done correctly, the film could match the cinematic intensity of Darren Aronofsky’s artfully gritty adaption of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream (2000). The novelist-essayist Woody Haut, author of Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction, has seen similarities between the two books for years. “Iced most resembles Selby’s Requiem when it comes to portraying states of degradation,” Haut says. “Though Iced is even more extreme and apparently personal while, at the same time, pursuing an inner reality that is constructed; it’s absolutely convincing. Iced not only conveys a harsh reality regarding time, place, and community, but there’s also a level of artifice in Shell’s novel that’s different from other drug novels. I’m not quite sure how that expresses itself other than its unwillingness to compromise, but making itself more immediate and no less real.”