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Black Panther Party’s Huey P. Newton’s Widow Reacts to ‘The Big Cigar’

Black Panther Party’s Huey P. Newton’s Widow Reacts to ‘The Big Cigar’

Black Panther Party’s Huey P. Newton’s Widow Reacts to ‘The Big Cigar’

My name is Fredrika Newton. I am the widow of Dr. Huey P. Newton, who co-founded the Black Panther Party in 1966 with Bobby Seale while they were both college students at Merritt College in Oakland, California.

Huey and the Black Panther Party are featured in a new series now streaming on Apple TV+ titled The Big Cigar, of which the final episode released on Friday. (André Holland portrays Huey P. Newton.) I was not involved in the creation of this series, but I do have a few things to say.

If you’ve been watching along, you’ll know that The Big Cigar is an adaptation of an extremely harrowing and dangerous time in Huey’s life, as he along with his first wife Gwen, escaped the United States for Cuba in 1974 after he was falsely accused of murder.

I was also a former rank and file member of The Black Panther Party. Huey and I married in 1984 and I was with him until the day he died. I am the co-founder of The Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, which has worked since 1995 to share his legacy and the accurate history of the Black Panther Party to as many audiences as possible.

I do this because what was done to the Black Panther Party, and to each of its members by our federal government cannot go unchallenged nor uncorrected.

I think for many people today who either don’t know about the Black Panther Party or who don’t have an accurate understanding of who they were or what they did, there is a definite inscrutability to it. I have been working to change that.

The Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation has developed programs, books, public art and, more recently, the Black Panther Party Museum, to promulgate the accurate history of the Black Panther Party. We share the stories of who they were, why they did what they did and very importantly, how they did it, because modern-day activists are looking back at the Black Panther Party and standing on the shoulders of this legacy as they navigate their own world.

Which brings me to The Big Cigar.

When I saw The Big Cigar for the first time, it was in a viewing room at Warner Bros. in Los Angeles, and I was incredibly distressed leading up to this moment. For too long, Hollywood has either ignored this important chapter of history or, for the most part, done a really poor job when they do attempt to showcase it. It’s been done incorrectly, flippantly, out of context and without any real research. It is hurtful, to say the least.

So, when I learned that this series was being made and then came to find that I had no way to impart any feedback or understanding or influence, I as well as many others who knew Huey were incredibly concerned.

I was worried how they would portray Huey, who was as complex as he was brilliant. I was worried for Gwen, because so many people have tried to write her unwavering courage out of history. I was worried about how they would showcase the Black Panther Party overall. My heart was in my throat.

But what I was left with after viewing all six episodes was mostly just relief. Let me explain.

Of all the things that the Black Panther Party’s members were up against — police brutality, hunger, housing inequality, lack of medical care, educational disparities and more, the most dangerous to the Party itself was our own federal government, which had waged war on us.

The FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had declared “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” Mind you, this was not the guns, rather it was the Free Breakfast for Schoolchildren Program. The community respected the Black Panther Party because we were stepping up where our government was falling far short. We were in our communities and improving conditions one survival program at a time.

How did the government target us? Through a now disrepute program called COINTELPRO — or counter-intelligence program. They looked to sew discord. They jailed Party members, some of whom are still political prisoners to this day. They murdered Party members. They infiltrated the media — a researcher named Curtis Austin found that nearly 70 percent of all news stories about the Party were either created by or influenced by the FBI under COINTELPRO. The public was spoonfed imagery of angry Black men in berets carrying guns when, in actuality, we were young (average age 19), a majority women and working in schools, medical clinics, cooking breakfast early in the morning for schoolchildren and more.

The Big Cigar does some very important things right. They showed just how insidious COINTELPRO was, especially the way it targeted Huey. It was relentless and evil. They also showed the ways the Party was helping our communities with our survival programs.

They showed a lot of important and pivotal moments in the Party’s history — the creation of the Party, the legally armed patrol of local police, the murder of Lil’ Bobby Hutton, the development of some of the survival programs, the political activism of Bobby Seale, the Ten Point Program, just to name a few. Which brings me to my final point.

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The pivotal moments I stated above are scratching the surface on very important touchstones for larger stories that must be told in order to understand The Black Panther Party accurately. The Black Panther Party deserves its rightful place in our nation’s history. What the young people did, putting their lives on the line every day in a war with social and economic obstacles that should never have been there while under siege by our own government is truly a story that needs to be told.

I want to thank those who were involved in the creation and making of The Big Cigar, and especially Janine Sherman Barrois and Jim Hecht, because I think they did a great deal of work to ensure the legacy of Huey and the Party was portrayed with dignity. The Big Cigar sets a foot in the right direction so that we may all dive in deeper.

The fact of the matter is, the Black Panther Party deserves more than a caper. The people who lived this history should have the opportunity to share their stories. I want the best storytellers out there working with them to share it with the world. Are you with us?

All Power to the People!

Sincerely,

Fredrika Newton

Fredrika Newton, a former Black Panther Party member and the widow of its co-founder Dr. Huey P. Newton, leads the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation in its mission to preserve the history and legacy of the Black Panther Party. In 2024, she and Dr. Xavier Buck co-founded The Black Panther Party Museum in downtown Oakland.

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