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The Big Cigar

It's an odd sensation to balance a series that at once works but doesn’t wholly meet your expectations. In the moment, as you’re clearly enjoying yourself, you can’t help but feel a nagging, pestering pull for more. Jim Hecht’s Apple TV+ miniseries “The Big Cigar,” based on Joshuah Bearman’s same-titled book, concerns Huey P. Newton’s escape from the FBI to Cuba. The series has fierce suspense, high product value, a deep ensemble, and keen psychological underpinnings. But even as an enthralling André Holland, who brings his signature, fully felt steaminess to the role of Newton, bewitches the viewer—there’s a sense that we’re merely scratching the surface of what the man meant to the movement.     

It’s been four decades since the Black Panther Party ceased operations. And yet, mainstream (white) America still seems uncomfortable celebrating the political group’s righteous radicalism. Back in the 1990s, “Forrest Gump,” for example, rendered them a punchline. As did “Barbershop 2” in the early aughts. In the last five years, however, Hollywood has gestured more directly at the party: “Black Panther” derives much of its tone from the organization’s fervor; “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the Fred Hampton biopic that netted Daniel Kaluuya a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as the slain political leader, spoke of its roots. But even these works avoid discomforting audiences by fully encapsulating the sharpened desire for self-defense and economic independence espoused by the party.  

Through its six episodes, “The Big Cigar,” by way of an at-times jarring, nonlinear timeline, attempts to give us a sense of Newton and the Panthers during their most critical moment. In the opening episode, directed by Don Cheadle, Newton desperately knocks on the door of Hollywood producer Bert Schneider (Alessandro Nivola in a hilarious flamboyant wig). The man often credited with birthing New Hollywood— Schneider produced “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces”—counts Newton as a friend. In fact, he brought Newton out to Tinseltown with the aim of making a Richard Pryor starring biopic of the political leader. A frazzled, primly dressed Newton, sporting a fedora and a leather fur coat, arrives with his girlfriend Gwen (Tiffany Boone) at Schneider’s needing more than a budget. He’s wanted by the FBI for the murder of a 17-year-old sex worker and needs to get out of the country. 

Newton’s bid for survival springs viewers into a spiraling tale of espionage, spycraft, and drug-fueled escapades. We criss-cross between Schneider and his best friend and producer partner at BBS productions, Stephen Blauner (P. J. Byrne), balancing their obligation to Newton and the completion of their groundbreaking anti-war documentary “Hearts and Minds” with Newton's own precarious journey to this point. For the former thread’s stability, we mostly explore the disintegrating friendship shared by the high-flying playboy Schneider and the studiously business-minded Blauner. Nivola and Byrne wonderfully encapsulate the close bond these two men shared and the personality differences that are wedging them apart. 

Despite his high opinion of himself as a leftist radical, Schneider isn’t a particularly deep man: He becomes instantly addicted to the air of danger Newton presents, as if he’s a new exotic street drug. That hollowness presents a difficult challenge for Nivola; he needs to be interesting enough in his dimwittedness for smarter viewers not to wonder why this series isn’t solely from Newton’s perspective. The series often tests our patience with his thread, as the character pushes his friends to the limit of even their empathy—but he lands that tension like few actors can. Nivola gives being “well-meaning” a startling dramatic and vulnerable edge that mostly keeps one interested in Schneider far beyond what the character on the page has earned. 

It helps that we’re essentially watching a mish-mash of “Argo” and “Winning Time.” We get the thrills of the former through Schneider hatching a plan to create a fake movie that’ll be a cover to smuggle Newton out of the country. The humor of seeing Schneider, Blauner, and Newton outwit the FBI agent tailing them is a wonderful piece of escalating laughs, as are the cast of oddball characters who enter this world: from a fidgety drug runner to winking references to the Hollywood scene.

But Newton is ultimately the star: The nonlinear timeline is mostly successful at orienting us to his psychological downfall. Newton is understandably skittish. After all, by 1974, when the series chiefly takes place, Malcolm X, MLK, and Fred Hampton had already been assassinated. Some of the Black Panther leadership, such as Eldridge Cleaver, had fled the country. Put that together with the crushing effects of COINTELPRO—the American government’s surveillance program used to undermine Black leaders—and you can understand how Newton would not only develop a serious drug habit but also spiral. Holland has always been a beguiling actor, but he’s particularly visceral and kinetic in Newtown’s fits of paranoia and distrust. Holland’s face drops, his eyes become defeated and vacant, and Newton seems to rapidly age under the stress. 

Holland gives definition to Newton’s interior, even when the series is far more interested in his exterior angst. We don’t get enough time between Newton and his father (an always dependable Glynn Turman). The ghost of a fallen young comrade that persistently haunts Newton is similarly underwritten. You come to wish the series’ creators cut back on the showy fireworks and zeroed in on developing quieter, more effective moments that could further build out Newton the man and his importance on a movement that seemed to be crumbling along with him.      

While “The Big Cigar” is certainly a rousing romp, it’s not nearly as politically radical as its real-life protagonist. It's rendered thematically thin due to its insistence on humanizing an FBI agent (Marc Menchaca) posing as a hippie. Many were duped by the government into public service only to learn of bureaucracy’s dark underbelly, particularly those sucked into the Vietnam War. But do we really need to understand a cop’s point of view? For some reason, the creators do. They think this white FBI agent’s perspective is more important than Newton’s girlfriend Gwen. She, at best, is merely a supportive partner—the one who grounds Newton without the audience ever finding any grounding with her. 

Though “The Big Cigar” is a sprawling, supercharged time capsule, one that fascinatingly blends a specific moment in Hollywood with the politically fraught reality of what was happening outside of dreamland—this series lacks an unflinching edge. It is unwilling to be as radical as Newton or the Black Panthers; instead, falling back on broad crowd-pleasing entertainment to soften the blow of Black Independence. 

Whole series screened for review. Premieres today on Apple TV+.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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Film Credits

The Big Cigar movie poster

The Big Cigar (2024)

240 minutes

Cast

André Holland as Huey P. Newton

Alessandro Nivola as Bert Schneider

Tiffany Boone as Gwen Fontaine

P.J. Byrne as Steve Blauner

Marc Menchaca as Agent Sydney Clark

Director

Creator

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