The Big Cigar’s True Story, Explained

Co-created by Jim Hecht and Janine Sherman Barrois, ‘The Big Cigar’ chronicles the story of  Huey P. Newton as he is assited by a Hollywood producer in escaping the FBI by fleeing to Cuba. Newton is a popular figure in the 1970s political landscape as the leader of the Black Panthers Party. He helps impoverished Black neighborhoods and schools while campaigning against police brutality with an armed movement. However, the paramilitary and ideological side of Newton’s work is considered a security threat by the FBI, which monitors his activities and seeks to prosecute him as an enemy of the state.

The Apple TV+ drama thriller spins an astounding tale of a political revolutionary being assisted by a high-society filmmaker in seeking asylum overseas. It details historical events of espionage, social struggle, and persecution. The show calls into question whether its story demonstrates a case of reality being stranger than fiction.

The Big Cigar is Loosely Based on Huey Newton’s Escape to Cuba

The storyline of ‘The Big Cigar’ is derived from Joshuah Bearman’s 2012 Playboy article of the same name. The article was published following producer Bert Schneider’s death in December 2011. It tells the story of a reverse ‘Argo,’ which was also inspired by one of Bearman’s articles. The Apple series takes the murky historical accounts of Newton’s flight and fully fleshes them out into a somewhat fictional and immensely dramatized story.

Image Credit: Richard Aoki Collection/Wikimedia Commons

Huey P. Newton was one of the founding members of the Black Panthers Party as a college student in Oakland, California. The demonstrative practice of the group was to conduct open-carry patrols to challenge any use of excessive force and misconduct by the Oakland Police Department. As they expanded and gained support, the party also ran social programs like clinics and the Free Breakfast for Children Programs. The group’s heavily armed members, as well as its Marxist–Leninist ideology, singled it out as a perceived threat to national security by the FBI.

As seen in the show, the FBI monitored Black Panthers Party members, including its actual leader, Huey P. Newton. The show begins with references to Newton’s run-ins with the law, recreating the historic demonstration of 1970, in which the party leader was released from prison to a cheering crowd. Newton was accused of shooting a police officer and was briefly convicted. The conviction was overturned when enough evidence against Newton could not be presented after two more trials. After his release in 1970, Newton stood on top of a police car and gave a speech to the cheering crowd.

An important detail about the show is that it presents the narrative of a highly controversial figure from his point of view. “Honoring what Huey said happened felt important,” said André Holland, the actor who essays Newton. “He was ultimately acquitted. The charges were dropped, so I think we had no choice but to believe what he said happened.” The actor also consulted dialect coach Erin Washington and studied Newton extensively to capture his essence. Additionally, Newton is presented with a softer personality and subdued tone compared to what historical records would suggest.

When Newton was being prosecuted for the murder of a sex worker along with a number of other crimes, he decided to leave the country in 1974. Fidel Castro, the president of Cuba at the time, was open to accepting political refugees from the Black Panthers Party as it followed a similar ideology to the leader’s. To help Newton make the trip to the island nation, his friend from Hollywood stepped in. This is where the Apple TV show’s narrative truly begins, and substantial creative liberties are taken regarding historical events. Bert Schneider, an icon of counterculture in Hollywood, became an avid supporter of the Black Panthers Party by the 1970s.

Schneider was particularly taken by Newton and his ideas since their first meeting and often called him the smartest man he ever knew. His moviemaking success began with ‘Easy Rider,’ and was followed up by Jack Nicholson starrer ‘Five Easy Pieces,’ and ‘The Last Picture Show.’ He also took part in the Hippie Movement and advocated against the country’s participation in the Vietnam War. Schneider became particularly invested in left-wing politics and was known to write exorbitant cheques to fund the Black Panthers Party. By 1974, when Newton needed him most, Schneider pulled through and began devising a plan for him to escape the country.

It is believed that while fleeing the law, Newton stayed at Schneider’s mansion as preparations were made for his departure. The plan was to send Newton across the border into Mexico, where he would wait for Artie Ross to take him into Cuba by boat. Artie, a good friend of Schneider, was given funds to have his sailboat, a trimaran, fitted with a diesel engine, radar, and some expensive sonar equipment. However, as detailed by the show in its own alternate version of events, the plan faced a number of challenges. Artie was to sail through the Panama Canal and arrive in Mexico, where he would pick up Newton’s party and embark on a journey to Cuba.

However, when Artie took the boat on a test cruise, he ran aground on an underwater statue of Jesus in the Florida Keys. With the trimaran sunk, Newton was stranded in Jalapa, Mexico, where Schneider had a second house and the party leader was kept company by Artie. While an alternative means of transit was being arranged, Artie allegedly had a difficult time essentially babysitting Newton. During the several months Artie spent with the exiled leader, he claimed that he had to keep Newton out of fights that he would start. Artie later complained to his sister about the increasingly violent behavior of Newton.

Artie apparently grew so frustrated with him that he said, “Newton was probably guilty of everything he’d been accused of, if not more.” Eventually, a boat captain called the Pirate was found, who agreed to ferry Newton to Cuba for a fee. Looking back at these events through the reports, there is no record of Schneider covering up Newton’s escape under the guise of a film shoot. The first mention of such a dramatic plot is made in Joshuah Bearman’s 2012 article, which claims that Newton’s transport was carried out under the guise of shooting a made-up movie called ‘The Cigar.’ Regardless of the differing incidents of the show, the historical events it is based on are quite unbelievable in their own right.

Schneider continued to support Newton after he reached Cuba and when he decided to return in 1977. Newton stood trial and was found not guilty when witnesses refused to testify against him. Until Newton passed away in 1989, Schneider continued to bankroll him and the Black Panthers Party, having spent millions of dollars. The writers behind ‘The Big Cigar’ were cautious about avoiding the white-savior narrative with Schneider when crafting the storyline. “We didn’t see it as a story of Hollywood patting itself on the back,” said Jim Hecht, a writer and an executive producer. “There was a time when people actually did put their bodies on the line and do things for a cause that they believed in. They took personal risks to do things that were political.”

‘The Big Cigar’ takes the true story of Huey P. Newton’s intriguing caper to Cuba and adds plenty of fictionalization and dramatization for more action and intrigue. When it comes to the controversy surrounding Newton, the show stands firmly behind the historical figure, seemingly favoring his version of events. The compelling narrative makes it evident that the writer and actors conducted considerable research into the Black Panthers Party leader and decided to depict him in their own light rather than carry out a strict imitation.

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