Huey P. Newton lived the sort of life playwrights and poets spend their lives trying to imagine and capture with the printed word.
A bittersweet mix of triumph and tragedy, Newton's life story is King Lear and Othello played out on the streets of Oakland, Calif., and, in its own unique way, is the story of the 20th-century black man. Maybe not the story, but certainly one of the most compelling.
The youngest of seven children, the Louisiana-born Newton moved with his family when he was still a child to Oakland, where he graduated high school a "functional illiterate." Before his life ended in 1989, the 47-year-old Newton went from not knowing how to read to earning a Ph.D. His death, in a hail of bullets during a crack deal gone bad, was hardly a fitting end for a man who in October 1966 changed the world when he co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
In his one-man show A Huey P. Newton Story, Roger Guenveur Smith brings to life the fallen hero of the people. A Spike Lee-directed movie based on Smith's off-Broadway hit premieres this week on the Encore Black Starz cable television channel.
With his only prop a pack of cigarettes that he chain-smokes for 90 minutes, Smith does not just portray Huey P. Newton, he becomes the man. At times Smith's voice, manner of speech and wild-eyed looks are so close to those of Newton that it becomes easy to forget that this is just an actor--that all he's doing is pretending to be someone else.
Smith's piece takes places in the '80s, two decades after J. Edgar Hoover and FBI declared the Black Panthers to be "the biggest threat to the internal security of the nation." Mixing some of Newton's words with his own ideas of what Huey was like, Smith paints a chilling portrait of a man who was both brilliant and insane. This is not the Shaft-like superheroic Newton portrayed by Marcus Chong in Mario Van Peebles' abysmal film Panther, this is the Huey that lived to see many of his friends and comrades murdered by the police and FBI. This is the same Huey P. Newton who was the target of one of the FBI's most intense COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) campaigns. Through a haze of cigarette smoke, stuttering speeches and meandering tangents, this Newton emerges as a broken man.
Charged with the murder of a cop in 1967, Newton spent three years in prison--mostly in solitary confinement--and was the focus of a massive "Free Huey" campaign. After his acquittal and release, Newton was never quite the same, eventually falling into a downward spiral of alcohol, drugs and violence. Part of what shattered the mind of Newton, Smith postulates, is the fact that the people rallied to set him free, but he was never able to free the
people. This is where A Huey P. Newton Story is at its most compelling and heartbreaking. Even though we will never know what really went through the mind of Newton those last few years of
his life, we know that something
led the man who started the free breakfast program for inner-city kids to find his peace of mind
within the confines of a crack pipe.
The only flaws to be found in
A Huey P. Newton Story are wrought by Spike Lee's hand. The direction of any solo performer's show should be straightforward. Think of John McNaughton's unobtrusive work on Eric Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and or try to remember who directed Richard Pryor: Live in Concert. The stars of these shows are the performers and their material--not the directors. But here it almost seems like Lee is trying to match Smith's creative energy, when that energy needs to speak for itself. Videotaped by Lee during a series of performances in New York, the film suffers from what appears to be either Lee's lack of confidence in the material, or his desire to augment a body of work that needs nothing more. The results are annoying camera movements, bad angles and poor editing choices that serve more to distract from Smith's performance than to enhance it.
Still, A Huey P. Newton Story emerges as a compelling film that borders on genius, despite the flaws Lee brings to the project--flaws that, in their own way, make the film all the more like Huey P. Newton.
A Huey P. Newton Story airs on Encore Black Starz at 9 pm Monday, June 18. For other air dates, go to www.starzencore.com.
Roger Guenveur Smith has appeared in many films including Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and School Daze.