The Big Cigar: Is Sydney Clark Based on a Real FBI Officer?

The system and the Black Panther Party are at odds with each other in Apple TV+’s ‘The Big Cigar.’ The show follows the story of Huey P. Newton and the lengths to which the authorities went to persecute him for being the voice of a generation and trying to stir a social revolution. Like any good story, there are many sides to the narrative presented in the show. One of the perspectives that the series presents the story through is the FBI agent, Sydney Clark, who spends a lot of time undercover to try and get his hands on the leader of the Black Panther party. For this, he dresses himself up as a hippie. As comical as it might seem within the context of the show, this part of the story is actually true.

The Fictional Sydney Clark Represents the Real FBI Undercover Officers

While ‘The Big Cigar’ is based on real events surrounding Huey Newton’s escape with Bert Schneider under the guise of a fake film, certain parts of the story have been fictionalized for dramatic effect. The show also combines several real-life figures to create one person who would better serve the narrative. Sydney Clark is one of them.

In the first two episodes of the show, Clark remains mostly in the background and is presented as a long-haired and heavily bearded FBI agent who has been sent undercover, posing as a hippie to gather information on the radical movements brewing among the hipsters, though his work is not limited to them. This approach was adopted by the FBI under Hoover, who was known to have been pretty intolerant of any dissent, no matter what part of the society it came from. From African-Americans fighting for equal rights (especially under the banner of the Black Panther party) to the LGBTQ+ community to the people with communist subversions, everyone not in alignment with his views was considered a threat to the nation, and to figure out what the dissenters were up to, FBI agents were planted amongst them, to live with them and learn their ways and get to the bottom of any conspiracy that may be brewing within the communities.

Sydney Clark’s character in the show represents the FBI agents who went undercover for such missions. While most have decided not to speak about that experience, there is a particular ex-FBI man who spoke about his experience in detail, a lot of which seems to have been drawn upon in concocting Sydney Clark for ‘The Big Cigar.’ The said person is named Cril Payne, the author of the book, ‘Deep Cover: An FBI Agent Infiltrates the Radical Underground.’ While there are a lot of things that Payne talks about in the book, the one that he really focuses on is the time he spent in British Columbia under the alias of Bill Lane in 1973. By this time, he had already spent a lot of time with the presumed radicals and knew enough to become one so well that when he found himself at odds with the law, no one would ever be able to guess that he, too, was a lawman.

Speaking of his experience in Canada, Payne revealed that he went there with a woman named Karen, who he believed had contacts in a group called Weatherman, aka the Weather Underground, “a small, violent offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, a group created in the turbulent ’60s to promote social change,” according to the FBI. The group was wanted in relation to their claims of responsibility in several bombings.

To play the part, Payne started working as a drug dealer, lived in a secondhand, shabby van, and listened to the music termed “hippie.” Reportedly, his role took him through all sorts of experiences, as he attended music festivals, lived in communes, and participated in orgies that included taking drugs. At one point, he was even brutally beaten by a police officer. But none of the trials and tribulations of his undercover work amounted to anything, and eventually, he was freed of the assignment and could come back home. By then, however, Payne had experienced the world through a lens very different from the one that the FBI and Hoover viewed it through, and it made him wonder about his work and role in the agency. This experience was reiterated by several agents under similar circumstances. With Sydney Clark’s character, we see a narrative along the same lines, although it is unique in its own right.

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