‘The Big Cigar’ Gives Huey P. Newton the Hollywood Treatment

At one point in the new Apple TV+ miniseries The Big Cigar, Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton (André Holland) attends a party and recalls the time he and film producer Bert Schneider (Alessandro Nivola) tried to write a movie about his life, which would have starred comedian Richard Pryor (Inny Clemons). The key, Schneider explains: “If it’s gonna be a biopic, you have to choose a moment in Huey’s life that means something. Don’t just make it womb to tomb.”

Though The Big Cigar features flashbacks to Newton creating and leading the Black Panthers, it mostly focuses on a brief period in 1974. Accused of murdering sex worker Kathleen Smith, Huey turns to Schneider and producing partner Steve Blauner (P.J. Byrne) for help getting out of the country.

To return to Schneider’s thesis from the party, this is definitely the story of a moment in Newton’s life rather than the “womb-to-tomb” approach that sinks so many film and TV biographies. But what, exactly, does this particular moment mean?

Mostly, it seems that The Big Cigar has turned the vibrant, complicated, and at times deeply ugly story of the life of Huey Newton into yet another Hollywood tale about how awesome Hollywood is.

The show is adapted by Winning Time co-creator Jim Hecht from a Playboy article by reporter Joshuah Bearman, whose work was previously turned into Argo. The plot hook is awfully similar to that Oscar winner for Best Picture: Most of the miniseries focuses on Schneider and Blauner faking production of a Blaxploitation movie (the titular Big Cigar) as a cover for smuggling Huey from California to Cuba, just as Ben Affleck and friends in Argo pretended to make a sci-fi epic in order to rescue the Iran hostages.

Hecht spends a lot of time exploring the importance of what Newton did in creating the Panthers and turning them into a political power in the late Sixties and early Seventies. But orienting the miniseries around another showbiz heist suggests that The Big Cigar is ultimately less interested in really exploring its protagonist, what made him tick and what he meant to the world, in ways good and bad.

Holland plays Huey with the same reserved but unmistakable screen presence he’s brought to all his TV roles, from the great Steven Soderbergh hospital drama The Knick(*) to even something as meandering as the 2020 Netflix jazz drama The Eddy. He narrates the miniseries in a soft, singsong cadence that belies Newton’s legend as a Black man who terrified the white establishment. The flashbacks play as distractions to the main story — welcome to yet another show with a fractured chronology that does more harm than good — but Holland is charismatic enough that he could have carried a version of the show entirely focused on Newton’s time with the Panthers. There is, for instance, a sequence in the first episode about the three years Newton spent in solitary confinement for a manslaughter conviction that was later overturned. The whole thing is just the star alone onscreen, either talking to himself or addressing the audience. Holland and Don Cheadle, who directed the first two episodes (and who has his own Soderbergh history), understand that the scenes need no one else to be harrowing.

(*) For a while, there was a plan for Barry Jenkins to revive The Knick for a new season where Holland would be the lead. Late last year, though, HBO boss Casey Bloys suggested the project was unlikely to move forward, since he and his team weren’t wild about the scripts.

But The Big Cigar keeps turning away from the larger Huey Newton legend to focus on this one small slice of it, and on Bert Schneider’s role as the rebellious producer who helped usher in the New Hollywood era through films like Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show. Despite the glitzier setting — and despite Cheadle and the other directors deploying split screens and other showy techniques that feel like vestiges of Hecht’s work on Winning Time — the caper story mostly fizzles. We don’t get enough detail on how the fake movie scam worked to make it feel as wild as the show obviously thinks it is. And the tension between Bert (who wants to revolutionize the world rather than revolutionizing cinema) and Steve (who just wants to make movies, and is upset that Bert is on the verge of bankrupting their production company to help Huey) never really comes to life. (The best part of that section of the plot features Noah Emmerich in a small role as Bert’s older brother Stanley, who ran Columbia Pictures and had no interest in life as a movie maverick.)

Hecht and company eventually blur the lines between Newton’s reality and the fakery in which Schneider and Blauner specialize. There’s a scene in a later episode where Huey watches a Shaft movie in a theater while would-be assassins shoot up the deli where he’s supposed to be. Rather than offer up a contrast between the two, the botched hit instead is shot and edited as if it could be playing in that same theater; it’s even scored to a Curtis Mayfield song.


In an early episode, we see Holland in a recreation of the iconic photo of a seated Newton holding a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other. This fictionalized Huey isn’t comfortable with the image, nor with how it shaped the world’s perception of him. Narrating, he cites a line from the French philosopher Michel Foucault, suggesting that when an image becomes iconic, it becomes impossible to see anything else. The Big Cigar, unfortunately, seems most interested in Huey the icon, to the point where it all but ignores any details of the murder of which he was accused. (Nor, in the closing titles about what happened to everyone after the events of the series, does it get into the allegations that the Panthers later attempted to murder a witness in the case to prevent her from testifying against Newton.)
Such messiness comes across as incidental to the magic-of-the-movies hooey that suffuses The Big Cigar. At one point, Huey even gives a speech about the importance of the work that Bert and Steve do, and how it helps inspire people like himself. It’s a wonder that he doesn’t end it with him channeling Nicole Kidman to say, “Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.”

The first two episodes of The Big Cigar begin streaming May 17th on Apple TV+, with additional installments releasing weekly. I’ve seen all six.

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