06/14/2024

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Recap: Huey P. Newton Plays Second Fiddle In ‘The Big Cigar’ Episode 1 & 2

The post Recap: Huey P. Newton Plays Second Fiddle In ‘The Big Cigar’ Episode 1 & 2 appeared first on Ready Steady Cut.

I’ll say this after Episode 1 and 2 of The Big Cigar – it would have been a great show five years ago.

Contemporary sensibilities get in the way of this Apple TV+ series, which seems fundamentally apologetic for even being about what it’s about. It centres on kind of a weird side story in the Black Panther saga, wherein party co-founder Huey P. Newton flees America in the midst of a manhunt for the safer, more communist climes of Cuba, aided by a couple of Hollywood producers and a who’s-who of celebrity radicals.

The Big Cigar Is Too Apologetic For Its Own Good

Huey is central to this story, but he isn’t the focus, since he’s being swept along on a caper organized by other people, almost all of whom are white. At least throughout “Panther/Producer” and “The Cuban”, The Big Cigar can’t help being noticeably embarrassed about this. And I get it. In 2024, a Black Panther story in which a legendary radical is upstaged by rich white men is asking for trouble. But the apologia makes for a worse show overall.

Episode 1 is more focused on Huey. Like a lot of the show, it’s set in 1974, with Huey on the run from the FBI after being falsely accused of murdering a sex worker, but it indulges in frequent flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks to add context and excuse some stylistic flourishes.

Times Are Changing

Since his 60s heyday, when a photo of him sitting imperiously in a wicker chair with a rifle in one hand and spear in the other became the image of armed resistance, Huey has been softened and disillusioned by a three-year stretch in solitary confinement and the real-time morphing of the Black Panther Party into a more accommodating movement. Eldridge Cleaver, who has a brief scene in Episode 2, is in Algerian exile, and in his absence Huey becomes the reluctant frontman of a party founded on the basis of armed resistance but that gradually becomes more interested in community outreach and other forms of nonviolent compromise.

Episode 1 does a good job of showcasing how Huey arrives at his point of view and a decent one of highlighting the ongoing need for the Black Panthers, but it’s terrible at characterizing anyone other than Huey or, as it progresses, Huey’s Hollywood ally Bert Schneider.

And there’s the awkwardness. The Big Cigar has planed Huey down to a cliff’s notes version of his life, with all the potentially controversial bits left on the cutting room floor, so he’s one of the least interesting characters in what is ostensibly his own story. Bert fares better, since there’s something inherently intriguing about a wealthy white producer who would risk everything to help out a wanted fugitive, but at the risk of allowing Bert to become the focal point of the narrative we have to put up with leaden dialogue like Bert regurgitating white ally platitudes like “It’s not my story,” and near-constant Huey-centric flashbacks that end up detracting from the more entertaining caper plot that emerges in Episode 2.

Huey’s Escape Plan Is Fundamentally Silly

The second episode is a lot of fun because the plot to smuggle Huey into Cuba under the guise of a fake movie called The Big Cigar begins to take shape. Here the show’s stylistic flourishes seem better-placed (Episode 1 and 2 were directed by Don Cheadle, who deserves some credit) and the ridiculousness of the scheme provides better drama and comedy.

But you can feel the show straining even here. I found the first two episodes very funny, but I also noted a reluctance to go too far with the comedy lest the seriousness of the subject matter be undermined. Conversely, though, the urge to be very sensitive and thoughtful about the subject takes away from what is, by all accounts, fundamentally a very daft story. It feels disappointing on both ends.

Nowhere is this better exemplified that in a sequence in Episode 2 where Huey tries to tell his dying father he loves him for the first and last time while Richard Pryor, of all people, distracts a couple of cops. Huey is exhibiting more emotion and vulnerability here than at any other point in the first two episodes, but he’s yards away from someone doing an arch impersonation of Richard Pryor. It just doesn’t quite work.

Still, it’s safe to say that Episode 2 of The Big Cigar does not end with Huey getting to Cuba, which means there are four more episodes to go in which the story can cohere and the focus can be directed in the right areas. Whether the show will pull that off is anyone’s guess, though.

The post Recap: Huey P. Newton Plays Second Fiddle In ‘The Big Cigar’ Episode 1 & 2 appeared first on Ready Steady Cut.