In ‘The Big Cigar,’ a Black Panther Stars in a Fake Movie

In ‘The Big Cigar,’ a Black Panther Stars in a Fake Movie

When the movie producer Bert Schneider met the Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton, he swooned.

Schneider, who had helped revolutionize the movie industry (and made a lot of money) as a producer of films like “Easy Rider,” wanted to shake up things off the screen as well. He saw Newton, who had already done a prison stint for the killing of a police officer — Newton denied that he shot the officer, and the conviction was eventually overturned — as the real deal, a star on the front lines of the actual revolution.

Their unlikely partnership is now the heart of the new limited series “The Big Cigar,” premiering April 17 on Apple TV+. It’s a caper about how Newton (played by André Holland) fled to Cuba in 1974 after he was arrested and charged with the murder of a prostitute (also a crime he claimed he didn’t commit). Schneider (Alessandro Nivola) ponied up cash and logistical assistance, including a fake film production, to help Newton escape.

“Cigar” tells a wild tale with shootouts and chases and a couple of strange bedfellows: a Black revolutionary on the run and a well-coiffed Hollywood power player looking to bankroll him. Even as it takes some liberties with the facts, the series reflects the ties that existed between some counterculture entertainment figures and radical organizations of the ’60s and ’70s.

“We didn’t see it as a story of Hollywood patting itself on the back,” Jim Hecht, the writer and an executive producer, said in a video interview. “There was a time when people actually did put their bodies on the line and do things for a cause that they believed in. They took personal risks to do things that were political.”

Based on a 2012 Playboy magazine article by Joshuah Bearman, who also wrote the article on which another fake movie caper, “Argo,” was based, “The Big Cigar” recreates an improbable slice of underground history. In a video interview, Holland (“Moonlight,” “Selma”) recalled his initial reaction upon reading the script: “Really? This actually happened? Let me go fact check this.” He did. “Though the story is largely fictionalized, the basic elements of it are based in truth,” he said. “Crazy story.”

Holland’s next concern was to see that Newton, rather than Schneider, would be the primary focus of the series.

“I wanted to make sure that this wasn’t a white savior story,” Holland said. “That’s something that we discussed all the way up until the very last episode. There were allies in Hollywood, people who were supporters of the party. At the same time, I think Huey P. Newton deserves a series all his own, and the party deserves its own series.

“Since we don’t have that much in the canon about the party,” he continued, “I felt like we had to be careful that we were telling a balanced story.”

In tracking the actions of Newton and Schneider, “The Big Cigar” also traces the inception of the Black Panthers, its mission and the relationships among its principal members.

Newton and Bobby Seale (played by Jordane Christie in the series) founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland in 1966 as a Black Power socialist organization dedicated to combating police brutality. Best known in mainstream culture for openly carrying firearms and “policing the police,” the Panthers were also active in their communities, including starting a program to serve breakfast to Oakland school children in 1969. There were big egos and personalities in the party, including Newton, Seale and Eldridge Cleaver (Brenton Allen), who also fled the police into exile, in Cuba, Algeria and France, and clashed over the direction of the party with Newton. The party’s leaders were extensively surveilled by the F.B.I., which was determined to bring down the group.

You can find many critical accounts of the Panthers and of Newton, who was murdered in 1989 by a drug dealer in West Oakland, Calif. Much of the news coverage of the Panthers during their heyday, including by The New York Times, was notably biased against the group, and works like “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021) have focused on the F.B.I.’s elaborate efforts to disrupt and discredit it. “The Big Cigar” is decidedly pro-Huey, depicting him as a sensitive soul driven to the brink by government surveillance, police persecution and subsequent paranoia. This Newton flashes a temper on occasion, but overall he is a man of principle, wary of the Hollywood influence that Schneider represents and willing to die for his absolute belief in revolution.

“When you look at the story of Huey Newton, it didn’t end the way we would’ve wanted it to end,” Janine Sherman Barrois, the showrunner and an executive producer, said in a video interview. “And that’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking especially for Huey, who had such a dream of the future and of revolutionizing and changing things.”

Don Cheadle, an executive producer on the series who also directed the first two episodes, was drawn by what he sees as Newton’s uncompromising nature.

“He stood 10 toes down, as they say, for what he believed in, and was willing to go all the way for it,” Cheadle said in a video interview. “I think whenever we see that, we are fascinated by it. It’s compelling and it draws you in.”

On the other side of the “Big Cigar” equation is Schneider, who died in 2011. He was part of the New Hollywood pack that steered the film industry toward more personal, counterculture movies, producing films like “Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Last Picture Show” and Peter Davis’s Oscar-winning Vietnam War documentary, “Hearts and Minds,” the making of which is a plot point in “The Big Cigar.” BBS Productions, the company he ran with the director Bob Rafelson and the producer Stephen Blauner (played in the series by P.J. Byrne), was at the heart of a movement known for giving filmmakers creative room to be artists. He and Rafelson also made a mint creating the prefab pop group the Monkees and the TV series that featured them.

Now he wanted to spend some of that cash on something more immediate than another movie. As Nivola’s Schneider tells Huey in the series, “I want to finance the revolution.” Then he snorts a line of cocaine, a drug both men were known to abuse.

The Panthers had other famous benefactors, including Leonard Bernstein and his wife, Felicia Cohn Montealegre, whose lavish fund-raising party at their Park Avenue duplex in 1970 was immortalized by Tom Wolfe in a New York magazine article and in the book “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.” But Schneider went the extra mile for Newton, not only bankrolling his Cuba escape but bringing celebrity friends (such as Jack Nicholson and Candice Bergen) to visit him there. Once Newton returned from exile and the prostitute murder case ended in a mistrial, Schneider continued to finance his lifestyle, including an apartment and a car.

Nivola’s primary research source was the collection of tapes that Bearman recorded with Schneider in the course of writing his article. “What started to emerge from those interviews was just how obsessed Bert was with Huey,” Nivola said in a video interview. “It was almost kind of religious. He talked about him as being the smartest man he’d ever met. He thought that his charisma was just blinding.”

Countercultural rhetoric was fashionable in Hollywood at the time. If Schneider had dabbled in radical causes before meeting Newton, Nivola continued, he became fully committed under the Panther leader’s influence: “He became a kind of acolyte and was just determined to help him succeed in every possible way.”

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