Apple TV+’s newest series, The Big Cigar, delivers a new perspective to the story of iconic revolutionist and Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton. 

The six-episode historical drama series is based on the Playboy article by journalist Joshuah Bearman. Newton was celebrated and condemned for his work with the Black Panthers in the 1960s. While his activist persona sometimes seemed larger than life, it was the perfect fit for the far-out world of Hollywood, who became an unlikely ally in his quest to escape to Cuba. 

In 1974, Newton (who André Holland portrays in the series) was falsely accused of murder, placing a target on his back with the FBI. Newton turned to his Hollywood producer friends Bert Schneider (Alessandro Nivola) and Steve Blauner (P.J. Byrne) for help. The series chronicles the struggles of their fake production, The Big Cigar, as a cover-up to smuggle the activist to Cuba. 

“The stuff that you think is the craziest, most absurd stuff really did happen,” executive producer Jim Hecht told Blavity’s Shadow and Act in a recent interview. 

Using factual references and accounts, The Big Cigar reveals the truth about one of the most significant capers in history. 

“The guiding principle was like capital T Truth,” Hecht said. “I think it’s a very nuanced, complicated portrayal of a revolutionary in crisis at a time in his life when he’s at a crossroads. And it doesn’t dive into hagiography. It embraces his vulnerabilities and tries to give you a portrait of a human who is an incredible man.”

Holland’s portrayal of Newton depicts a leader’s internal struggle with saving himself or what he had built. He told us that learning more about Newton, such as being an introvert and disliking public speaking, helped him zone in on the man behind the narrative we all know.

“That internal tension between his feelings about himself and how he wants to live in the world versus what’s expected of him,” Holland shared. “These images that got created of him in the wicker chair with the gun in the spear, you know, became so iconic that he had to live up to that or felt he had to live up to that to keep things going.”

Holland acknowledged that although Newton would have preferred not to be a public figure, he knew how to use the media to create sensation and share his message.

The idea of Netwon being a TikTok star was far-fetched, but being a Black Twitter activist seemed right up his alley.

The Big Cigar uses flashbacks and intersections of different characters to narrate what was happening in Newton’s life when he was planning his escape: the growth of the Black Panther Party, the group’s conflict, and his relationship with his pastor father, Walter Newton (Glynn Turman), and partner, Gwen Fontaine (Tiffany Boone). 

Boone’s depiction of Fontaine was the perfect counterbalance to Newton’s chaos during times of uncertainty.

She aimed to humanize the polarizing figure and show the softer side of Newton.

She told us, “I wanted to make sure that she was strong and fierce. I wanted to show that she could say no to him but also make sure in their relationship that there was gentleness and nurturing and care. A lot of times she’s like ‘shoot it to him straight and tell them what it is.'”

Boone added to scenes intentionally, including moments where she would rub Holland’s hair and show him affection.

“It’s not all like, ‘no, don’t do that here; go here,’ and telling him what to do, but there was a deep love and care between them,” she said.

Her portrayal of Fontaine also represented Black women’s role within the movement, especially those who didn’t want to stand on the frontlines but support from behind the scenes.

“It was important to show that these women were taking care of their children and other party member’s children, all while doing the same things the men were doing. Many women were not allowed to show that, so it was a great opportunity to show the average woman at the party,” Boone said.

Inserting historical references in the series, such as The Black Panther Party’s breakfast program and internal conflicts between Newton and party co-founder Bobby Seale, was especially important to executive producer Janine Sherman Barrios. 

“In a world right now, where Black history is being threatened throughout the United States, where books made about race are part of the largest being banned, it’s so imperative that the generations coming up know our history,” she said. 

This Big Cigar is now streaming on Apple TV+.