The Big Cigar TV Review

Date:

Don Cheadle directs the first episodes of Andre Holland as the founder of the Black Panther party in the AppleTV+ limited series.

Last Updated on May 22, 2024

Plot: The incredible true story of Hollywood revolution meeting social revolution: it’s a wild caper of Black Panther founder Huey Newton escaping from the FBI to Cuba with the help of famed producer Bert Schneider in an impossibly elaborate plan – involving a fake movie production — that goes wrong every way it possibly can. And somehow, it’s all true. Mostly.

Review: The stories of revolutionary political figures and social reformers have been popular for big and small screen adaptations for decades. There seems to be more focus on the 1960s and 1970s than any other period in American history. The 2021 film Judas and the Black Messiah looked at controversial figure Fred Hampton, while this year’s Shirley chronicled Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s run for United States President. While these and the stories of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X have made for acclaimed productions, the story of Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton has barely been adapted. Despite a brief appearance in Shirley, Newton’s life and impact on society have never been adequately told. The new limited series The Big Cigar tries to rectify that with a cleaned-up look at Newton and his escape to Cuba after a bogus murder charge sent him on the run. The series is interesting but not nearly as incendiary as it deserves to be.

The Big Cigar gets its name from the fake feature film project developed as a cover for Huey P. Newton’s escape from American authorities. If that sounds similar to the setup of Argo, you are not wrong. This series and Ben Affleck’s Academy Award-winning film are based on articles by Joshua Bearman, who serves as executive producer on The Big Cigar. The difference between that film and this series, besides the extended episodic format of The Big Cigar, is the tone. Argo was played as a thriller, whereas The Big Cigar floats between the formula of a biopic and a drama with comedic overtones. The life of Huey P. Newton was fraught with controversy and drugs, something this series glosses over in favor of a cat-and-mouse chase narrative reminiscent of Catch Me If You Can. Despite the best efforts of those involved in front of and behind the camera, The Big Cigar is woefully forgettable.

With voice-over narration from Andre Holland as Newton, The Big Cigar condenses the first years of the Black Panther Party founder into the opening episode. With six episodes to unfurl his story, this series crams the creation of the BPP from 1966 through his 1970 incarceration into thirty minutes before expanding his 1974 escape to Cuba into the bulk of the narrative. Along the way, the series shows how Newton met Hollywood producer Bert Schneider (Alessandro Nivola) and his partner Stephen Blauner (P.J. Clarke) and how their fundraising for the Black Panthers eventually led to the fake movie that facilitated Newton’s escape from the United States. The series also puts a hippie FBI agent named Sydney Clark (Mark Menchaca) on the trail, consistently one step away from catching Newton and bringing him to justice.

The Big Cigar review

Some intriguing moments early on in the series feature famous faces connected to Schneider’s film Easy Rider, including Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, as well as actors portraying Candice Bergen and Richard Pryor. The film also gives background on Schneider’s father, Abe (John Dornan), a studio executive, and his uncle Stanley (Noah Emmerich), as well as screenwriter Arthur A. Ross, who gets embroiled in The Big Cigar project. The series also includes famous Black Panther members Bobby Seale (Jordane Christie) and Teressa Dixon (Moses Ingram), as well as Eldridge Cleaver (Brenton Allen). We also see the contentious relationship between Huey and his father, Walter (Glynn Turman). The bulk of the screen time is held by Andre Holland, who does a solid job like Huey P. Newton despite this not being remotely close to the actor’s best work. Holland works well opposite Tiffany Boone, who portrays Newton’s future wife, Gwen Fontaine.

Showrunner Jim Hecht, creator of HBO’s short-lived Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, had the opportunity to turn this story into something electric. There is certainly a message to convey about the lasting impact of the community initiatives started by the Black Panther Party. Still, much of this is condensed to some end title cards in the final episode. The six episodes had more than enough time to drive this story’s message through, but it instead feels like a glorified portrait of Huey P. Newton that skips some vital details. The writing staff, which includes Ameer Hasan, Laurence Andries, Janine Sherman Barrois, Gwendolyn M. Parker, Valerie Woods, and Joshuah Bearman, fails to make this story feel immediate. Director Don Cheadle, who helms the first two episodes, echoes his similarly disjointed biopic Miles Ahead and tries to bring in some period flairs in transitions and camera angles, but it never comes together. The other four episodes, helmed by Tiffany Johnson and Damon Thomas, need more material to fill the hour-long chapters.

After finishing The Big Cigar, I was left underwhelmed by how much wasted potential this series had. Huey P. Newton is such a massive and important historical figure and one who suffered a great deal of persecution, paranoia, and drug addiction during a life full of positive impacts. Not much of that comes through in this series that strives to look and feel cool but instead comes across as distant and heavy-handed. As good as Andre Holland, Tiffany Boone, and Alessandro Nivola are as actors, they never have enough material to elevate The Big Cigar from feeling like a half-baked project in the vein of the one that inspired its namesake. The setup for The Big Cigar is more intriguing than the finished product, which is a disservice to Newton and the Black Panther Party’s story.

The Big Cigar premieres on May 17th on AppleTV+.

Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/the-big-cigar-tv-review/

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