erasing clouds

A Huey P. Newton Story

reviewed by Dave Heaton

A Huey P. Newton Story opens with a montage of moments from the 60s, one which in part contrasts "hippies" dancing about, wearing flowers in their hair, with black-clad, beret-wearing Black Panthers and clips from speeches by Malcolm X about the fight for freedom. That struggle, not only for racial equality but for all of the concrete changes that would have accompanied any true change in that regard --in areas like education, economic opportunities and housing--is at the heart of the film, as it was central to the man who is depicted, Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton.

A filmed version of Roger Guenveur Smith's one-man stage play, A Huey P. Newton Story, directed by Spike Lee, premiered earlier this summer on the Black Starz cable network. Recently, as part of the Kansas City Film Festival, Smith brought the film to the historic 18th & Vine jazz district of Kansas City, Missouri, staying after the showing to talk about the film and answer questions about it.

The film takes place in a theatre setting where audience members are behind fences, bringing to mind a prison setting. Newton (Smith) sits in a chair on a stage in the center of the room, and begins addressing the audience in a quiet, rambling tone. Over the course of the film, Newton talks about the history of the Black Panthers, his own place in that history, and the current and past state of American society, while taking detours into poetry, jokes (delivered almost like a stand-up comic would), and expressions of fear, loneliness, paranoia and sadness. As Smith put it after the showing, the film is about "a man who is torn from the inside, building himself up the same time he's tearing himself down." In the film Newton is simultaneously an articulate social critic trying his best to help his people escape poverty and a confused, self-deprecating man weary from being chased by the FBI and castigated by the media.

"We're in the business of creating non-fiction," Newton says early in the film, and indeed a major success of the film is the way it documents the accomplishments of the Panthers from Newton's perspective. In contrast to Hollywood-ized versions of the Black Panthers (Panther in particular) and the mass media's take on them, A Huey P. Newton Story depicts the Panthers in a way quite truthful to the written and spoken accounts of the original Party members. And indeed, Smith said that 80% of the words in the film are things that Newton actually said. In the film Newton makes the point that the media paid more attention to the Panthers' rhetoric than it did their actions. Near the start of the film, Newton goes through the original platform of the Party step by step, taking pains to highlight the fact that their big concerns included getting jobs, education and housing for African-Americans. He also stresses (as Bobby Seale did when I heard him speak in 1999) the free children's breakfasts and lunches sponsored by the Panthers--what, according to the film, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover thought was the Panthers' most troublesome deed, an act of "infiltration."

While the film does tell the Panthers' story, it is by no means a straightforward telling. This is Smith's interpretation of Newton as a person (note that the title says it's a Huey P. Newton story, not the story). Newton has a stream-of-consciousness way of speaking; he goes from here to there and then to way over there, shifting topics constantly. He talks about the blues, about leadership versus less-hierarchical structures in movements for change, and, through Smith's fictionalized musings on what Newton would think of events that occurred after his death, about modern-day police brutality and the role hip-hop musicians have in our society today. The nonlinear way in which Newton speaks in the film and Smith's superb acting skills make the filmed Newton a real, multidimensional character. Smith also uses a range of dramatic gestures to add power to the film, from Newton turning his fingers from a peace sign into a gun to illustrate a point, to a mid-film intermission where Smith does a bizarre dance (one which at times imitates the movements of a junkie, bringing that aspect of Newton's life to the forefront) to Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man." Smith's words and acting here are augmented by collaborations both with director Lee, who adds both a unique visual style and a series of documentary film clips that run behind Smith through much of the film, and an outstanding musical score by Marc Anthony Thompson.

Near the film's end, Newton talks about his favorite scene in one of his favorite films, Black Orpheus. He gets a twinkle in his eye as he describes the film's final moments, where the boy who the main character taught to play guitar plays guitar while a girl dances and the sun rises in the background. This passing down of talent and knowledge to the next generation is one of the main messages behind A Huey P. Newton Story. He depicts a man who was not perfect, and who did not seek to be a leader, but who had a strong desire to affect change and who through his words and deeds kept the movement of true freedom rolling, setting an example for generations to come.

Those students include artists like Roger Guenveur Smith, who during the question and answer session in Kansas City said that the reason he has worked with Spike Lee on seven films is that they share the idea that movies are "not just entertainment, but fighting for freedom." This film is another important part in the artistic side of that fight, using cinema to generate thought, discussion and action on real-life issues, on what's going on in the world and what we can do about it. It's a shame that so far it's only showed on the Black Starz network, as it's one of those films that all human beings can gain something from, not just those with enough money to have digital cable.

Issue 7, October 2001 | next article

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