‘The Big Cigar’ review: In well-made Apple TV+ series, Huey P. Newton plots ‘Argo’-style escape to Cuba

In 1974, Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton was on the run from the feds when he hatched a plan to flee to Cuba, with the help of his friend, the maverick Hollywood producer Bert Schneider of “Easy Rider” fame. They decided to create a phony movie, titled, “The Big Cigar,” as a cover story to help camouflage the complicated logistics entailed in arranging for Newton’s escape.

Hold on, that sounds like the premise for “Argo,” the 2012 best picture winner that was inspired by true-life events and based in part on a Wired magazine article written by Joshuah Bearman — and as a matter of fact, “The Big Cigar” is based on a 2012 Playboy magazine article of the same name by … Joshuah Bearman. As was the case with “Argo,” this six-part limited series on Apple TV+ has a foundation in factual events but is highly stylized and exercises considerable poetic license.

With André Holland turning in richly layered and charismatic work as Newton and serving as the narrator of the story, we’re told from the get-go that this is a fictionalized take on events: “The story I’m about to tell you is true, at least mostly true, at least how I remember it,” says Holland as Newton. “But it is coming through the lens of Hollywood, so let’s see how much of my story they’re really willing to show.”

With episodes directed by Don Cheadle, Tiffany Johnson and Damon Thomas, and brightly colored visuals and fashions and set designs reflecting the 1967-1974 time period covered in the series, “The Big Cigar” moves at a brisk pace and favors a darkly comedic approach in most scenes, though there’s some grounded and serious drama as well. Holland doesn’t do an impersonation of Newton — his voice is deeper and more mellifluous — but he does a brilliant job of capturing a complicated and thoughtful man who set out to challenge racism and oppression and to create programs that would help his community but could also be incendiary and violent and polarizing and narcissistic and self-destructive.

The series is more sympathetic than critical in its portrayal of Newton, but it doesn’t shy away from showing how his ego and his addiction to drugs and the power struggles within the Black Panther Party got in the way of the original mission. It’s also a knowing glimpse into a time when segments of young Hollywood wanted to be a part of the revolution, the anti-war movement, the cultural upheaval.

As we’ve often noted, it’s practically Streaming Law at this point that a dramatic series opens in media res, and “The Big Cigar” adheres to that format as we see Huey and friends fleeing for their lives as gunmen pursue them, set to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” (The needle-drop budget is impressive for this series, with songs such as the Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me To Stay” and Rare Earth’s “Celebrate” among the many classics on the soundtrack — though it should be noted Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles?” is heard in a 1967 scene, even though it wasn’t released until a half-decade later). We then flash back to the 1960s, shortly after Newton and Bobby Seale (an excellent Jordane Christie) had founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland.

Alessandro Nivola does some of his finest work as Bert Schneider, whose father was the head of Columbia Pictures and who made a pile of cash as the co-creator (with the filmmaker Bob Rafelson) of “The Monkees.” Schneider wants desperately to help the Panthers — he tells Newton he would love to finance the revolution — and Newton reluctantly agrees. A most unlikely partnership is formed.

Years after that initial bonding, Newton turns to Schneider in his time of need, and “The Big Cigar” feels like “Goodfellas” Lite as the plan to get to Cuba runs into one snafu after another, sometimes in violent fashion. At times the tone is almost campy, with actors portraying real-life figures such as Richard Pryor, Jack Nicholson and Candice Bergen, but the Hollywood scenes are counter-balanced with the more serious drama, with Tiffany Boone (“The Chi,” “Hunters”) delivering resonant work as Gwen Fontaine, who worked tirelessly for the Panthers and eventually married Newton, and the great Glynn Turman as Huey’s father, a Baptist preacher who was not impressed by his son’s theatrics.

There’s an abundance of written and recorded material about Newton, including Spike Lee’s 2001 film adaptation “A Huey P. Newton Story” and “Revolutionary Suicide,” Newton’s memoir. “The Big Cigar” makes no claims to be any kind of definitive biopic; it’s simply a well-made and, yes, fictionalized telling of the Hollywood-adjacent chapter in Newton’s life.

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