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André Holland in Apple TV+ Huey Newton Series

André Holland in Apple TV+ Huey Newton Series

Whether it’s something like “Central” for Expats or “Long, Long Time” from The Last of Us, the change-of-perspective standalone episode has become a way to deliver a contained short story within a fuller novel — to remind viewers that every supporting character has a different prism through which they process events.

Ideally, Apple TV+‘s The Big Cigar should be “The Big Cigar,” a change-of-perspective standalone episode within a definitive 10-part limited series about the Black Panthers. In a different perfect world, The Big Cigar could still be a six-episode limited series, but it would follow limited series(es) already devoted to Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver; at that point, once the history of militant Black activism in the ’60s and ’70s had been adequately told, it would be a perfect time to say, “And here’s an oddball story that was on the periphery! Enjoy!”

The Big Cigar

The Bottom Line

Turns one wild story into two mediocre stories.

Airdate: Friday, May 17 (Apple TV+)
Cast: André Holland, Tiffany Boone, Alessandro Nivola, Marc Menchaca, P.J. Byrne
Creator: Jim Hecht

Instead, The Big Cigar sets out to tell a historically secondary story in which Huey P. Newton is a central, but fairly passive, participant. But this is 2024, and you can’t tell a Huey P. Newton story in which the actual protagonists are a bunch of white Hollywood producers. The Big Cigar writers know this. There’s even a scene in which Newton and some Tinseltown bigwigs are discussing doing a Newton biopic, and Bert Schneider declares, “Don’t put me in it. It’s not my story.” He’s right. The writers of the series are right. But in trying to use the narrative of the heroically bumbling white Hollywood producers as a backdoor for a chronicle of the Black Panthers (in which Newton is kinda the focus), neither story is given its due.

The Big Cigar ends up being two different unsatisfying shows squished together into six episodes of under 42 minutes apiece — occasionally stylish and boasting a very good lead performance by André Holland, but frustratingly mediocre overall.

The bulk of The Big Cigar is set in 1974. Newton (Holland) is on the run from the law, accused of murdering a teenage sex worker. Having repeatedly been railroaded by the justice system, including a prison sentence spent primarily in solitary confinement, Newton flees to, of all places, Los Angeles, where he enlists Bert Schneider’s (Alessandro Nivola) assistance in smuggling him out of the country.

Schneider, deep into post-production on the Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds, comes up with a brilliant idea: Newton will be smuggled into Cuba under the auspices of a fake movie titled The Big Cigar, and the FBI — one-dimensionally embodied by Agent Clark (Marc Menchaca) and Agent Anderson (James Cade) — will be none the wiser.

It’s here that you’re probably noting similarities to the Oscar-winning thriller Argo, which isn’t a coincidence, since both projects are based in part on articles by Joshuah Bearman. And if you’re also sensing similarities to Winning Time, that’s because The Big Cigar was adapted by Jim Hecht, co-creator of that HBO period dramedy.

You’ll feel those similarities for the first episode or two of The Big Cigar — especially when it weaves in a bunch of celebrity impressions that don’t pay off, other than treating people like Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson as pointless background characters who, when all is said and done, have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story.

After the halfway point, the movie-within-the-show stops being relevant either. There are little bits of the escape that have a heist-y looseness and sense of fun, but The Big Cigar is stuck in an awkward place where it doesn’t want this story to be too much fun, but it’s afraid to make the story too serious either. It’s a tonally disjointed approach that’s matched by the series’ visual style, which boasts a lot of snazzy editing and jazzy split-screens in the first two episodes, both directed by Don Cheadle, and becomes generally aesthetically anonymous in the four subsequent episodes, directed by Tiffany Johnson and Damon Thomas.

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The problem is that it’s hard to exactly articulate who Newton was at that particular moment in history. He was traumatized and paranoid and had little resemblance to the iconic figure he was in the late 1960s, when the picture of Newton sitting in a wicker chair holding a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other became the archetypal representation of the resistance. The Black Panther party also wasn’t the same institution in 1974 that it was five years earlier. Newton and Bobby Seale (Jordane Christie) were on the outs. Eldridge Cleaver (Brenton Allen) was in an exile of his own in Algeria, a bizarre historical chapter that also probably deserves a limited series and was featured in Netflix’s Agent Elvis, of all places. Idealism had given way to assimilation and compromise.

So The Big Cigar uses flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks so that we see Newton at his charismatic peak; so that we get hints of the differences between his and Seale’s personalities; and so that we get we get a sense of the Black Panthers at their progressive peak. Cleaver is generally a non-factor here, and key Panthers like Elaine Brown are mentioned but unseen. Instead we get two or three episodes that focus occasionally on Moses Ingram’s Teressa Dixon, who is, I believe, a composite and ultimately completely irrelevant. The story jumps back and forth and back and forth within a five-year period and I guarantee that nobody who comes in without any knowledge of the Black Panthers will be able to make meaningful sense of any of it.

The bouncing around in time hinders Holland’s ability to build a coherent portrait of Newton, as does the show’s nervous hesitation to delve into the real darkness in Newton’s biography. It doesn’t help that most of Newton’s key emotional scenes are opposite Tiffany Boone’s Gwen, who hasn’t been written with a trace of a personality.

It isn’t a full whitewashing. Newton is damaged and self-obsessed and self-destructive, but the dominant tone is still one of general adulation and consistent evasion of anything that would permanently obscure that. An assault on a tailor is treated as a joke and featured only off-screen, while the murder that Newton is wanted for throughout the series is acknowledged only as a fabrication by the police, which wasn’t exactly the case (nor is the post-script explaining that Newton was “acquitted” of the murder). Newton is scripted to directly acknowledge The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance‘s “print the legend” quote, but when you have Holland trying to play a complex version of a real human, it’s discordant.

As for the men representing the legend-making factory, they end up with the clearest, if least interesting, arcs in the story. Bert is a spoiled rich kid determined to use his last name — father Abe (John Doman) runs Columbia Pictures, while brother Stan (Noah Emmerich, utterly wasted) is a more conservative movie producer — and his clout to make a difference, but he keeps screwing up. Stephen Blauner (P.J. Byrne) wants to do something similar, though his girlfriend Roz (Jaime Ray Newman, underused) is tiring of his altruism. They’re both Jewish, which is mentioned enough times that it ought to be more relevant than it is.

Nivola and Byrne are fine, and in the second half of the series, their characters are constantly doing things to push the plot along, while Holland’s Newton is reactively unraveling. The show makes a point of having a character — Inny Clemons’ Richard Pryor, much more present than makes any sense — declare that he’s “been around Hollywood long enough to know that it ain’t gonna get made unless you put a white person in it,” suggesting it wants to do something different or better. And then… the white people are the characters advancing the story.

This all explains why The Big Cigar eventually reaches a finale that has no idea what stories it’s meant to be resolving and what tone would be appropriate for that resolution, much less how it wants to sum up the lessons of the series. You can spot a dozen great tales scattered throughout The Big Cigar, but the best thing about the series is that it shouldn’t preempt somebody going out and making a genuinely great Black Panthers series.

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