Guenveur Smith as Huey Newton,
Black Panther activist, in the film adaptation
of his one-man play.
The Black Panther as a One-Man Show
by Esther Iverem
SeeingBlack.com Editor and Film Critic
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The 1960'swith its politics and prophets of social changeremains
fertile ground for artists seeking to tell stories of contemporary
As always, the battle is over what stories will be told and who
will tell them. How, for example, will the Black Panthers be remembered?
Members of the Black Panther Party For Self Defense have been successful
at turning first-person accounts into books. There was, of course,
Hollywood's brief, superficial flirtation with the film Panther
in 1995. Last month, former panther Kathleen Cleaver was sponsor,
along with filmmaker St. Claire Bourne, of a Black Panther Film
Festival in New York City. It is in this tradition of Panther narrative
that I place A Huey P. Newton Story, a powerful if sometimes
plodding film based on Roger Guenveur Smith's one-man stage play
and directed by Spike Lee. (Premiering June 18 on Black Starz!)
Huey P. Newton Story was directed by Spike Lee.
In Smith's veteran and imaginative hands, Newtonthe Panther's
minister of defenseis drawn in warm relief. There is no beret,
or rounds of ammunition slung over his shoulder. He is dressed simply
in a black shirt, pants and shoes, sitting in a chair on an otherwise
bare stage. The set represents the Oakland high-rise apartment where
Newton lived in the later years of his life. It is from this position
that he ruminates on his life, all the while nervously bouncing
his right leg and chain-smoking Kools. With a Southern boy charm,
Smith disarms the audience, which looks on in silhouette behind
a tall, chain-link fence. While he is being so affable, Smith looks
both as if he is on stage and as if he is in prison.
Smith uses humor and references to current events to make Newton
just a regular guy, one with obviously a few physical ticks and
dependencies. He becomes a Black Panther around-the-way brother,
the youngest of seven children of a minister, the one who was a
slow learner, the one who hated to be teased with chants of "Baby
Huey." It is in this home-spun style that Newton's panther pedigree
seems natural rather than radical. Who can argue with the right
to housing, jobs, an end to police brutality and trials before a
jury of your peers?
This production has evolved considerably since its beginning in
1996. Now Newton refers to the 1997 murder of the Notorious B.I.G
and calls the Oval Office the "Oral Office." Both comments are references
to events that occurred well after Newton's 1989 shooting death
on an Oakland street, after an alleged drug-related altercation.
The dialogue is a lot funnier than the original stage play. While
Smith doesn't approach the feel of stand-up comedythe closest
thing to a one-man show in the Black film tradition-he gets his
share of laughs. One joke is J. Edgar Hoover's assertion that the
biggest threat to the internal security of the United States was
the panther's Free Breakfast Program. On stage, Newton finds humor
in the subversive power of "grits."
This version of Smith's performance also downplays the original
play's emphasis on Newton as a drug user. The result, you could
say, is a more "positive" portrayal of Newton but "positive" isn't
really what is projected. Here is a painful and complex humanity.
Historic footage and photographs break up the visual monotony of
the bare set, though they cannot fully save it from its slow moments.
It is almost inevitable, despite Smith's significant acting feat,
that the minimal action will be cause for squirmingespecially
when viewed on a small screen. Thankfully, the challenge of filming
one man sitting does not overwhelm the power or substance of this
important interpretation of 60's history.
Screened at Acapulco Black Film Festival
2001,"A Huey P. Newton Story" will also be shown on PBS
and on the African American Heritage Network.
-- June 21, 2001
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