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In Features, Issues

BLACK PANTHER

By Mary Glucksman

SPIKE LEE FINISHED a new film this spring, but you won’t be able to see this one in your neighborhood theater. The digital video feature, a 90-minute version of actor Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show about Black Panther party co-founder Huey P. Newton, premieres this month on cable channel Starz!, its producer, after sold-out festival screenings at Acapulco and Newport. (PBS screenings follow later in the year.)

A Huey P. Newton Story is a personal portrait of the controversial activist told largely in his own words and augmented with archival footage and Lee’s signature flourishes. The film is the seventh Spike Lee joint Smith has worked on as an actor. It’s only the second time Lee has directed for the small screen (he did HBO’s version of the John Leguizamo one-man show Freak in 1998) but his fourth experiment with nonfiction after the documentary 4 Little Girls and the concert film The Original Kings of Comedy. Best known to Lee’s fans for his performances in Get on the Bus and He Got Game, and to TV audiences for a recurring role on Oz, Smith’s other movie credits include Eve’s Bayou, Final Destination, The King of New York and John Singleton’s Baby Boy.

Smith, who looks startlingly like photos of Newton as a young man, won an Obie Award for the stage version of Huey Newton in a production at New York’s Joseph Papp Public Theater. Lee shot parts of his film onstage, with Smith channelling Newton before a live audience whose ghostly shadows, seen in silhouette, resonate as witnesses to a chapter in American history with which most viewers likely have only glancing familiarity.

Newton and Bobby Seale, two self-styled revolutionaries who met as college students in Oakland, Calif., formed the radical Black Panthers in 1966 after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The agenda they promoted was distingushed from most other civil-rights activism of the time by a confrontational, pro-violence stance that raised the ire of then FBI head, J. Edgar Hoover.

Although most news reporting focused on their calls for insurrection, the Black Panthers also founded free clinics, served breakfast to hungry schoolkids and organized massive voter-registration drives.

Newton’s 1967 jailing after a gun battle with a police officer that left him wounded and the officer dead galvanized college students throughout the country. The volatile Newton eventually developed a crack habit and died in 1989, at 47 years old, in a drug-related shooting. Seale now works with Temple University’s African-American Studies program and has published three books including a Panther history, his autobiography, and a collection of barbecue recipes. Black Panther Party information minister Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, his prison memoirs, remains one of the most widely read books about the period.

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