‘The Big Cigar’ Keeps The Spirit Of The Black Panthers Alive

the big cigar tv show

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The Black Panther Party is one of the most recognisable symbols of the Black civil rights movement in the US. But how much do we actually know about the group? The Big Cigar tells the full story, even if it’s only “mostly” true. 

The new Apple TV+ series tells the story of Huey P Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party, and his attempt to evade police when he’s charged with the murder of a 17-year-old sex worker, Kathleen Smith. Claiming to be falsely accused, Huey sought the help of Hollywood producer Bert Schneider to produce a fake movie as a guise to smuggle him to Cuba. 

It’s a wild story, and not all of it is entirely true. But underlying all the potentially sensationalised material lies the dark underbelly of the cruel injustice Black people faced, and still face, in the US. 

Junkee spoke to The Big Cigar’s André Holland (Huey P Newton) and Tiffany Boone (Gwen Fontaine) about the series. 

Ky Stewart, Junkee: The Black Panthers are obviously an iconic symbol of Black freedom and resistance. Why do you think it’s important to keep their spirit alive today?

André Holland: Well, I think that one of the things that Huey talks about in terms of the choice to use the panther as a symbol is that the nature of the panther is that it doesn’t attack first, but rather tends to be defensive. When pushed into a corner, it’s willing to react. I think that the position that the Panthers took early on was one of community organising. They were trying to figure out ways to improve life for the people in their communities. Now, over time, I think the messaging has become one of ‘Oh, they were aggressive and they were violent and the guns and leather jackets’. But again, I think that it’s important to me, and I hope that people realised through watching [The Big Cigar], that at its core there was a community organisation that was trying to make life better. Not trying to cause harm.

Tiffany Boone: I think we can never forget what they stood for and how much change they brought about. For me, what I like to focus on about the party is that they were really about community outreach and I think people lose that a lot, being caught up in the images of the guns and the berets. But what they were really about was making a difference in your own community. You get a glimpse of that in the show so I hope people take that on and hope we’re all doing something in our community to make it better.

André, what was it like playing such a monumental historical figure like Huey P. Newton?

André: One of the biggest challenges of my acting career for sure. It asked a lot of me in terms of the emotional commitment and the physical commitment of trying to get my body ready to do that. He was in most of the scenes of the series and so the workload was pretty intense. Vocally, there were challenges. You know, his voice is very, very different from my own. Then also just the research — trying to get my head around what was happening in the world. There were so many books to read and so many people to talk to. It was a heavy lift, but I’m so glad that I got a chance to do it.

What did you learn about Huey’s struggle and journey?

André: So many things. I didn’t know that he was such a movie buff. He was a big, big fan of movies. And I didn’t know that. I didn’t know how shy he was. I imagined that he was very comfortable in public, but he wasn’t at all. He struggled with reading at times. And so all of those things were like little vulnerabilities that I never imagined him having. I also was really excited to discover or rediscover the contributions that the women in the party made to the movement. I read a lot about them as well. So I hope that people who see this series also do a bit of research and learn more about them. The Huey P Newton Foundation in Oakland is a really wonderful resource. They have a great museum, so I hope people will go and visit them as well.

Tiffany, what was it like playing Gwen Fontaine? 

Tiffany: It was great because I didn’t really know a lot about her before I started playing the role and I feel like a lot of people don’t know the name Gwen Fontaine. So it’s an honour to play her. It was also a lot of pressure because there’s not a lot out there about her. But anytime people can learn about the women who were part of the movement is really great. I hope people see this and get more curious about the women’s part in the Black Panther Party. 

Gwen provides so much support to Huey and sometimes in history the women standing beside men get overlooked. What parts of Gwen resonated with you? What do you hope resonates with the  audience? 

Tiffany: For me, it was really important that from what I read she was pretty serious. She didn’t take any BS from other people but she brought out this other side of [Huey]. I think that’s important. When you see these strong women, you also know there’s this vulnerability and can feel a softness there. I was struggling to make sure that she wasn’t just this one-dimensional character who was either a yes-man for Huey or just really tough with him all the time. I hope by seeing that, you see some humanity in her. What we were trying to achieve in general was bringing humanity to all of these characters because they weren’t just people in the Black Panther Party who wore berets. They were real people who went through real things who had real children and lived full lives. I hope people see that and get more interested in them. 

There are similarities between how members of the Black Panther Party were treated and how Black people are treated today. How can people find hope and strength in The Big Cigar? 

Tiffany: I hope that people see this and decide to find out more about the Black Panther Party and what it really stood for, the principles of the party. Know that yes, we’ve come a long way but we still have a long way to go. If you can look at Huey and the other Black Panthers as more than just these iconic people with their guns and berets then you can see in their hearts —  they had a lot of the same desires as us and that means if they could make a change then so can we. 

What other historical roles would you like to play?

André: That might be it for a little while, I think. I’ve done a fair amount of them and I think it’d be fun to do something a little light and maybe comedic for a while. These kinds of things can be really taxing. I mean, an honour for sure. But yeah, really taxing at times. 

Tiffany: Oh, to be honest. I’m not sure if I’d want to play any more historical figures. I’m not saying if it came along I wouldn’t say yes, but this was a little difficult. Even just watching André having to deal with the pressure playing Huey, it’s not as easy as it looks. I’m not putting that out there right now because I’m not sure I want to manifest it. 

The first two episodes of The Big Cigar are streaming now on Apple TV+.

[Editor’s note: Interviews with André and Tiffany were conducted separately, but with similar questions. They have been edited for clarity.]

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and Multimedia Reporter at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

Image: Apple TV+