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Roger 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 Editor and Film Critic

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The 1960's—with its politics and prophets of social change—remains fertile ground for artists seeking to tell stories of contemporary significance.

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!)

A Huey P. Newton Story was directed by Spike Lee.

In Smith's veteran and imaginative hands, Newton—the Panther's minister of defense—is 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 comedy—the 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 squirming—especially 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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