There are few of us who haven’t seen that photo of Huey Newton, sitting stiffly in a large wicker chair, holding a spear in one hand and a rifle in the other. His expression is hard, full of resolve. The image of a revolutionary in a beret and leather jacket, charismatic and stridently radical, would become part of the world-shaking iconography of the 1960s. Influenced by the teachings of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers initially began in Oakland, Calif., to protect black citizens from white policemen, but soon spread into education and community work, among other enterprises. At the same fervent period of the late ’60s, American cinema was beginning to catch up to the social movements that were sweeping the rest of the nation.
By 1968, the turbulent year that Newton sat for this photo, legal troubles already haunted him. Convicted of killing an Oakland cop, Newton spent two years in prison. In the space of time he was inside, he had become a cultural icon and a celebrity. Avatars of Newton appeared all over cinema screens, from Jules Dassin’s Uptight to the black revolutionaries of Medium Cool. In Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badassssss Song (1971), the hero saves a Black Panther from the police, and Van Peebles enlisted several Panther friends to help get his shoestring budget film seen by black audiences. Mario Van Peebles, the director’s son, would later chart the entire history of the Black Panther Party in his 1995 film Panther, with Marcus Chong as Huey. Then there were the films more stridently based on guerrilla tactics, borrowing directly from the Black Panther handbook, like The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973). FBI suppression played a role in getting the film yanked from theaters not long after its release.
In contemporary documentary films on the Black Panthers, Newton often makes a related appearance. Agnes Varda’s excellent 30-minute short, filmed from the perspective of a foreigner in a foreign land, sees Huey speaking from prison about his treatment while inside. Handsome and well-spoken from the confines of his cell, he seems to have fascinated a lot of Hollywood personalities of the time. These included Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, and others—though few knew how many criminal activities Newton was engaged in. One such “radical chic” type was hot-shot counterculture film producer Bert Schneider, one of the key executives of the “New” Hollywood. Schneider had films from Five Easy Pieces to Oscar-winning Vietnam doc Hearts & Minds under his belt, and befriended Newton in the ’70s while generous financial support to Panther causes. This friendship veered into questionable territory when Schneider helped to organize Newton’s escape to Cuba after he was wanted for the murder of a teen prostitute.
Regardless of personal moral turpitude, Huey Newton came to embody the spirit of his movement on the cinematic front. Would there be a Shaft without the Black Power movement that Newton and Bobby Seale precipitated? It seems unlikely indeed.
Christina Newland is a writer on film and culture for VICE, Esquire, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, and others. She’s a displaced New Yorker in love with ’70s Hollywood and boxing flicks.