Andre Holland channels Black Panther’s Huey Newton

Just as the 1960s Black political activist and lawmaker Shirley Chisholm was elevated from obscurity by Regina King’s recent biopic “Shirley,” is “The Big Cigar” meant to revive another iconic ‘60s Black activist, the Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton?

“In some ways it is,” answered Andre Holland who plays Newton in Friday’s AppleTV+ six-part series. “In the sense that he’s a figure most people know very little about.

“We are familiar obviously with some of the iconic images and iconography that exists with Huey” – most famously a portrait, reproduced in “Cigar,” of Newton seated in a wicker chair with a spear in one hand and a rifle in the other.

“But we don’t know a whole lot about the man himself or really even about the Black Panther Party movement. What they were really all about,” Holland, 44, continued. “So I hope that this is an opportunity for people to be introduced or reintroduced to Huey in a new way — and also to the Panther Party and to what they really were after.”

“Big Cigar” follows Newton’s flight to Castro’s Cuba.  Before that, he had been on trial for the 1967 murder of a police officer in a shoot-out. That’s when the political plea “Free Huey!” gained traction. Another murder trial in 1974 prompted his exile. “Huey had been being pursued by the FBI for quite some time. He had seen friends and comrades be killed in prison. He was under great threat.

“This particular series looks at that moment where he was in need of refuge and he comes to Hollywood and leans on the relationship with a friend, a Hollywood producer, Bert Schneider. Together they come up with this idea to get him out of the country.”

Schneider (Alessandro Nivola) was Hollywood royalty – his father had run Columbia Pictures. Proudly radical, he backed the ground-breaking “Easy Rider” and won an Oscar for his anti-Vietnam War documentary “Hearts and Minds.”

Newton’s return to California in 1977 was greeted by a crowd of 1,500.  His trials ended in hung juries. On Aug. 22, 1989, Newton was murdered, gunned down on the street.

Has time has changed perspectives on Newton’s life and legacy?
“In some ways, because of the way in which his life ended, the narrative around his life, at least as I’ve understood it and I’ve experienced it, has been somewhat limited,” Holland said.

“Time and distance has only made that more difficult to understand and to honor his community organizing. He was trying to make life better for the community. That message maybe has been part of what’s been lost over the years. I hope this will be a good reminder for people.”

“The Big Cigar” streams 2 episodes on AppleTV+ May 17

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