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The Big Cigar





Paul Asay

TV Series Review

Huey P. Newton needs to get out of town. Like, right now.

The cofounder of the Black Panther Party has been accused of killing a 17-year-old prostitute. Huey claims he’s being framed: The “murderous feds” have wanted to sideline the controversial activist for a good long while now, and they’ll use whatever excuse they can to lock Huey away. Looks like they found their excuse.

There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Not in the U.S., anyway. And getting out of the country? The government will be watching every road and every airport for the great Huey Newton.

Nope, outside an escape only found in a Hollywood movie, Huey’s goose is well and cooked.

Unless Hollywood itself comes up big.

Driving This Crazy

Enter Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner, the producers behind the revolutionary hit Easy Rider. Bert’s a card-carrying member of the counterculture (or would be if the counterculture issued membership cards). Steve is his more cautious business partner. They’re major players in the movie industry, responsible for many a hit. But when a desperate Huey comes a-calling, Bert and Steve quickly concoct an entirely different script.

Let’s create a fake movie and use it as a pretext to get Huey and his girlfriend, Gwen, out of the country.

It’s not an ideal scenario. Huey never wanted to get mixed up with the film industry in the first place. “Hollywood is the fast track to capitalist co-optation,” one of his Black Panther cohorts warns.

But years earlier, when Huey and Bert spent time in a jail cell for arguing with some harassing police, Huey felt like maybe he could work with Hollywood—at least Bert Schneider’s Hollywood—after all. Bert’s pockets were deep, and his ideology was on point. He promised plenty of money and no interference. And, for the last few years, he’d earned from Huey a measure of trust.

But to ship Huey to Cuba by pretending he’s the star of the next big Bert Schneider flick? A movie titled, incidentally, The Big Cigar? That’ll require a different level of trust.

But Huey’s out of options. If his own story isn’t going to come to an abrupt end, the activist will need to put his script in Steve’s and Burt’s hands—and hope that Fidel Castro will welcome one more disenchanted American to Cuba’s shores.

Shades of Gray

“The story I’m about to tell you is true,” Huey tells us at the outset. “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 are really willing to show.”

That’s a lot of caveats to start any biographical miniseries with, especially when it’s about someone as polarizing as Huey Newton. But since it’s reputed to be told from Newton’s own perspective, perhaps we can forgive The Big Cigar for feeling a big hagiographic.

This stylish Apple TV+ miniseries takes us not just through Huey’s unlikely escape to Cuba, but on a race through much of his life and career: his formative experiences dealing with racism in Louisiana and, later, Oakland, California; those early days of the Black Panther Party; his armed posturing; his community activism. We see and hear plenty about the Black Panther’s extensive charity works. It reminds us that its oft-armed presence was absolutely legal and (in light of what the show would categorize as racist law enforcement) absolutely justified.

Through the show’s initial episodes, the man is painted as a flat-out paragon of justice—and certainly not guilty of any the heinous things that he was arrested for. He didn’t kill that police officer in 1967, an alleged crime that kept Huey behind bars for three years. (The charges were indeed overturned in 1970.) He had nothing to do with the 1974 murder of that 17-year-old prostitute (even though the show itself hints that Bert and Steve destroyed evidence that might’ve incriminated the activist).

As is the case with most of our culture’s heroes, of course, the truth is likely more complex and more uncertain. If the FBI had an opportunity to produce its own Apple TV+ miniseries on Huey’s life and activism, the script might look quite different.

But if we shove aside any historical quibbles, we’re still dealing with a show that brings some problems to its Hollywood hills party.

The Big Cigar’s violent content isn’t as bad as it could be. But we do see people die violently, with those deaths often accompanied by blood.

Episodes are peppered with the f- and s-words, along with plenty of other profanities. The n-word is used with some frequency. And this taking place at least partly in 1970s Hollywood, we’re treated to plenty of alcohol and drug use. We suffer through sexual asides and bathroom humor as well.

Huey is wary of the motion picture industry: its motives, its sincerity and its ability to tell the truth. In general—and in the case of The Big Cigar specifically—I think it’s wise to share Huey’s suspicions.

(Editor’s Note: Plugged In is rarely able to watch every episode of a given series for review. As such, there’s always a chance that you might see a problem that we didn’t. If you notice content that you feel should be included in our review, send us an email at [email protected], or contact us via Facebook or Instagram, and be sure to let us know the episode number, title and season so that we can check it out.)

Episode Reviews

May 17, 2024—S1, E1: “Panther/Producer”

Huey and his girlfriend, Gwen, show up at producer Bert Schneider’s Beverly Hills mansion in 1974, desperately looking for help. Huey’s been accused of murder, and he knows it’s just a matter of time before federal agents arrest him. Bert and his business partner, Steve Blauner, come up with a crazy plan. Meanwhile, we get a quick recap of Huey’s pre-1974 history—including how Huey and Bert met.

Huey’s personal story alludes to some major run-ins with the law, including when he was accused of shooting and killing a police officer (whom we see lying on the ground). “A lot of bullets were flying that night, but none of them were mine,” he narrates. And after three years (in solitary confinement, according to Huey), the legal system agreed that the judgment didn’t match the evidence. The conviction was overturned. “I was set free a marked man and, worse, a g-dd–n idol,” he says, adding that celebrity is its own kind of prison.

We don’t see Huey’s alleged 1974 victim, either alive or dead. Characters only say that the woman was killed. But when Bert and Steve visit a lawyer to discuss Huey’s options, he paints a dire picture—played out on screen—of the three of them brutally gunned down.

We see instances of police brutality, and Huey talks about how he watched police “beating and killing Black people in the streets.” Those instances sparked one of the Black Panther’s most visible responses: armed watchfulness. Huey and a friend demonstrate this early on. When they see a police officer frisking and questioning a Black man, they pull over, pull out their rifles and watch menacingly. They’re making sure, they say, that the Black man’s civil rights aren’t being violated. (Huey, who knows Oakland’s legalities well, quotes the laws that underline their right to bear arms openly.)

We hear a lot about, and see some, racism. Huey talks about the police as an “occupying force in our community” and calls officers “pigs.” Huey holds up the communist revolutionary Che Guevara as an example to a young Black Panther and hear plenty of denigration of capitalism.

When a Black Panther member, Teressa, keeps pushing to meet with Huey, Huey jokes with her (in so many words) that she must’ve had sex with the producer. Law enforcement breaks into a house and finds a bunch of kids dressed in togas. There’s a reference to “dry humping.”

Huey, Bert and several Black Panthers get into a physical altercation with police, which lands the lot of them in jail. Bert comes away with a black eye.

Bert smokes a marijuana joint at a party and offers Huey it. (He accepts.) Several people drink at the same party.

It’s suggested that Bert and Steve got rid of a car that might’ve incriminated Huey in the murder, then lie to their lawyer about tampering with evidence.

We hear an extended conversation about excess flatulence and stressed-induced hemorrhoids.

Characters say the f-word about 35 times, and the s-word more than a dozen. We also hear “a–,” “g-dd–n,” “d–n,” “h—” and “n-gger,” along with some other racial slurs and crudities. Jesus’ name is abused once.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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