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'The Big Cigar' dramatizes Black Panther Huey P. Newton's Hollywood ties and escape to Cuba

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

André Holland is the best reason to watch “The Big Cigar,” a messy, overstuffed fact-ish miniseries, premiering Friday on Apple TV+, mainly but only partly about the relationship of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton, played by Holland, and Hollywood producer Bert Schneider (Alessandro Nivola).

It’s based on a 2012 Playboy magazine article by Joshuah Bearman, whose earlier reporting provided the basis for Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” in which the CIA mounts a phony film to smuggle embassy workers out of Iran. “The Big Cigar” also — if nominally — involves a phony movie, created as cover to get Newton, on the run from the authorities, out of the country to Cuba. Hollywood loves the chance to replicate a success, and “Cigar” was originally, and quickly, optioned as a movie, to be scripted by Jim Hecht (co-creator of “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty”). As sometimes happens with undeveloped films nowadays, it has emerged a dozen years later as a miniseries, with Hecht still attached, Janine Sherman Barrois (“The Kings of Napa”) as showrunner and Don Cheadle directing its first two episodes.

The series opens with double disclaimers. A title card announces that “some aspects and timelines have been fictionalized for purposes of dramatization,” adding that any resemblance of the fictional parts to anything nonfictional is not intended. And as the episode proper begins, Newton, as narrator, declares: “The story I’m about to tell you is true. At least mostly true. At least how I remember it. But it is coming through the lens of Hollywood, so let’s see how much of my story they’re really willing to show.” Of course, someone from Hollywood wrote that line, and the rest of them.

But when you’re told that not everything you’re about to see is true, everything becomes untrustworthy. Barring prior knowledge, you’re forced to guess what’s fact and what’s fiction, run constantly to Google or, the most productive choice from a viewer’s standpoint, to not care. Some scenes re-create documented events, as when Newton — greeted by a large crowd after three years of incarceration for involuntary manslaughter — jumps on the hood of a car to make a speech and rips off his shirt; or when he and rival Panther Eldridge Cleaver (Brenton Allen) have an argumentative phone call on a TV morning show.

To be sure, the script is filled with historical facts and people. But I am 99.99% certain that Canter’s Deli was never the scene of a shootout between Panthers and mobsters. And I’m even more sure that Newton was not accompanied to a Hollywood party by the ghost of Panther treasurer Bobby Hutton, shot by police at age 17, who was excited to thank Marlon Brando “for what he said at my thing.” (That the actor delivered his eulogy is not specified.)

The “present day” of the film is 1974, although it frequently bounces back to earlier times to illustrate a point or provide backstory: the creation of the Black Panthers by Newton and Bobby Seale (Jordane Christie), its accomplishments and ideological fracturing, Newton’s legal misadventures and abandonment of violent rhetoric as a useful tool. “I don’t want to be that guy in the wicker chair anymore,” he says, referring to the famous photograph in which he’s seated with a rifle and a spear.

“According to the philosopher Foucault, when an image becomes iconic, it is impossible to see the subject as anything else,” says Newton the narrator, who feels trapped by “celebrity, surveillance and the prison of my own mind.”

Schneider, whose father, Abe Schneider (John Doman), ran Columbia Pictures, was Hollywood counterculture: alternative, independent and, most important, successful. With Bob Rafelson (neither seen nor mentioned here), he produced “The Monkees,” “Easy Rider” — we get a Dennis Hopper caricature here, played by Chris Brochu — and “Five Easy Pieces.” With the addition of his childhood friend Steve Blauner (P. J. Byrne), the three formed BBS Productions, which made “The Last Picture Show,” “The King of Marvin Gardens” and Peter Davis’ Oscar-winning Vietnam documentary “Hearts and Minds,” whose completion is at stake here. In an age of movements, he was a movement supporter, and watching Newton shirtless on the news, he’s charmed.

“Bert was tired of cultural revolutionaries,” says Newton, “and when he saw me, he saw cinéma vérité.”

 

Schneider, who confesses, “I’m always measuring my actions against my convictions and coming up short,” courts Newton, offering the Panthers money, support and the Hollywood megaphone. Newton is suspicious, but they find common ground, and when the Panther eventually goes on the lam, claiming he’s being framed for the attempted murder of a teenage sex worker, it’s Schneider’s door he knocks on.

“You’re the hot shot producer man,” says Newton, who is hoping to get out of the country. “You wanna produce something? Produce this.”

And so, after some spitballing and blue-skying, they decide to pretend to make a movie to cover his escape. Bearman’s article may explain just how this worked, or was supposed to work — I dithered whether to spend $99 on a Playboy “membership” to read it and decided that money might be better used elsewhere — but we get little more than talk. In any case, Newton’s escape ultimately has nothing to do with any film, fake or otherwise. I’m sorry to disappoint you, if that’s what you’ve come for.

In spite of a premise that suggests it might be, “The Big Cigar” isn’t a comedy or satire. The only overtly comic character is an increasingly frustrated undercover FBI agent, Sydney (Marc Menchaca), done up in hippie regalia, a temperamental cross between Inspector Javert from “Les Misérables” and Chief Inspector Dreyfus of “The Pink Panther” movies. Although the series treats Blauner as a fretful schlemiel in early episodes — almost the moment we meet him, we hear about his hemorrhoids — he’s allowed to be a man of action later on.

The series isn’t dumb; if anything, it has too much on its mind. But in attempting to tell so many stories about so many people, and with its ceaseless rocketing around in time, it loses focus and force. It’s a tonal mishmash — a historical explainer, a bromance, a love story (Tiffany Boone makes a strong impression as Newton’s girlfriend, Gwen Fontaine), a caper film with retro split-screen effects and narrow escapes. It’s intellectual, philosophical, sentimental, even cornball. (“I want to transform society, Pop,” Newton tells his father, played by Glynn Turman. “I envision a world beyond conflict and violence.” His pop reminds him that pride is a mortal sin.)

But Holland shifts gears smoothly through these twists and turns. For all of Newton’s intermittent volatility and drug-enchanced paranoia — though, as the saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you — he makes him someone you want to learn more about, the best thing an actor playing a real person can do. (And there is no lack of resources, should you care to.)

Underscoring its opening disclaimers, “The Big Cigar” protects itself again as Newton finally observes, “You can tell a story a thousand ways” and reflects on facts and legends and movies in which actors speak dialogue written by screenwriters adapting books. So make of this what you will.

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