André Holland embodies Black Panther Party Founder, Huey P. Newton in new series

André Holland as Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. Photo Courtesy Apple TV+

“The Big Cigar” (Apple TV+) is one of the most interesting explorations of the Civil Rights era through the eyes of Black Panther Party Founder, Huey P. Newton played by André Holland.

Based on the magazine article by Joshuah Bearman, “The Big Cigar” tells the true story of how Newton was able to evade arrest in Oakland by fleeing to Cuba under the guise of a fake movie production spearheaded by Oscar Award-winning producer, Bert Schneider played by Alessandro Nivola. Within six episodes (the first two are directed and executive produced by Don Cheadle) audiences are taken on a fast-paced journey through Newton’s life, his strengths, and his shortcomings.

Oftentimes historical figures are portrayed as deities, however, in “The Big Cigar”, Holland’s embodiment of Newton is that of a man with a dichotomous personality who’s under immense pressure to be an exemplary figurehead of his organization all the while battling his own demons. When asked what he wanted audiences to take away from his portrayal of Newton, actor André Holland told the LA Sentinel, “Huey was complicated and there were many facets to his personality. He was sensitive, brilliant, a deep thinker, and deeply passionate about the liberation of oppressed people around the world.

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At the same time, he was, at times, violent and misogynistic. I wanted to present a three-dimensional portrayal of this person without indicting him and without excusing some of his behavior.” Holland added, “This isn’t a biopic, so we had to be really strategic in how we presented those different facets of his personality. I hope [the audience] feels like it was a balanced portrayal because that’s what I was striving to do.”

André Holland as Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. Photo Courtesy Apple TV+

Jim Hecht who developed the series and also served as one of the writers and executive producers, gives additional insight into what Newton was experiencing during the time. “For [“The Big Cigar”] to find a home in people’s hearts, you have to see all that this man was struggling with, which was very complex and difficult. Huey did three years in solitary confinement, which we now know, is a form of torture. But I don’t think he was aware of terms like “PTSD” (post-traumatic stress disorder) the way that people are today.”

Hecht continued, “After three years of being tortured, [upon release] Huey suddenly became a celebrity, and then for years, the United States government, put the full weight of their resources behind trying to kill him. So, I thought it was important to contextualize why he’s going through the things he’s going through. This was a person in crisis at a crossroads in his life, which just happens to timeout with a caper.”

With a resume that includes the films, “Shirley” and “Selma” both set within the Civil Rights Movement and featuring the Black Panther Party, André Holland is well-versed in the historical significance of the 1960s and 70s. He shared that preparation for the role of Huey P. Newton included reading Black Panther Party chairwoman Elaine Brown’s book, “A Taste of Power“ where he learned more about Black women’s invaluable contributions to the movement.

“There are many women who have gone uncredited and unheralded for their work,” said Holland.  He emphasized the importance of taking advantage of the various supplemental resources to learn more about this pivotal time including visiting the Black Panther Party Museum that was recently opened by the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation in Oakland.

André Holland as Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. Photo Courtesy Apple TV+

As the credits rolled on the final episode of the series, there was footage of protests from recent years with text that imparted, ‘…We need to continue to be revolutionaries.’

When asked, outside of voting, what was the call to action for the audience, Executive Producer, writer, and showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois said, “If you want things to change, if you want equity for women and for people of color, if you want the educational system to change, you’ve got to do what Huey Newton and the Panthers did. You can’t just like a picture on social media, you have to get out of bed, go outside, get in the streets, get involved in politics, roll up your sleeves, and do something. That’s how the world will change.”

Echoing similar sentiments, Holland added, “In addition to voting, there’s an opportunity for people to be involved in their local communities and organizing efforts. For example, The Ten-Point Program (the Black Panther Party’s set of guidelines, ideals, and ways of operation) included the breakfast program which made me think about my grandmother in Alabama, who also organized a summer lunch program for young kids in the neighborhood, which in her own way, was quite a revolutionary thing for her to be doing.”

He added, “Access to education was also [a part of The Ten-Point Program]. There are ways in which we can be more engaged in our communities as well as more supportive and helpful to young people. There’s a lot of work to be done, and it has to come from within our own communities.”

New episodes of “The Big Cigar” are released on Fridays on AppleTV+.