The Big Cigar Is a Slick Caper That Only Superficially Grasps Its History Lesson

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The Big Cigar Is a Slick Caper That Only Superficially Grasps Its History Lesson

André Holland is having a good 2024. His performance in the indie drama Exhibiting Forgiveness, where he played a painter who must contend with his abusive father suddenly reentering his life, earned him rave reviews at Sundance. He appeared in a different, if less acclaimed civil rights drama on streaming, playing pastor Walter Fauntroy in Netflix’s Shirley. He now takes centerstage in The Big Cigar—a slick (to a fault) dramatization of Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton’s escape from the FBI to Cuba in the 1970s, and how two producers faked a film production to fund his flight. 

It’s a quick, exciting injection of historical entertainment, grounded by terrific lead performances, but what seemed like a selling point (that it’s adapted from a non-fiction piece by the same writer who reported on the story that became Argo, Joshua Bearman), turns out to be a slight red flag. Not because of the quality of Bearman’s reporting, but because of the filmmaking instincts that turn his prose into drama—like the 2013 Best Picture winner, this series often prioritizes excitement over the more mundane pleasures of submerging ourselves in process. The Big Cigar is thoroughly entertaining, but rather than fully honoring this under-told piece of history, it feels like things have been manipulated into the form of a digestible six-episode miniseries.

Huey P. Newton founded the Black Panther Party in 1966 with fellow college student Bobby Seale, with the mission of having a Black power presence on Oakland, California’s streets and combating police fascism with legal acumen and visible, armed Black solidarity in the neighborhood. A few years in, social welfare initiatives were introduced, providing breakfast for local school kids and health clinics, but Newton’s leadership faced an increasing level of pushback from within the Party structure, resulting in splits and purges that turfed out prominent figures like Seale and Eldridge Cleaver.

To The Big Cigar’s credit, this history takes up a good portion of the narrative, as if the series acknowledges it’s more compelling than the subversive “fake movie” hook, but there’s a keen sense that complex and specifically Marxist-Leninist politics have been condensed into sparky interpersonal drama. The series, created by Criminal Minds and ER writer Janine Sherman Barrois and developed by Jim Hecht, also lays out the logic and reasoning behind the Black Panthers’ tenet of arming its members, a position that’s rarely justified and supported in mainstream entertainment. When Newton and his wife Gwen Fontaine (Tiffany Boone) start fraternizing with California media moguls, the ignorance and condescension central to so much rich solidarity is also laid out—the Black radicals are risking so much more than their white counterparts.

The two producers who decide to shelter and smuggle Newton and Fontaine out of the country when the FBI fabricates murder charges to imprison Newton provide most of The Big Cigar’s culture clash tension and humor. Easy Rider producer Bert Schneider (Alessandro Nivola) is a countercultural trailblazer, paired with his meeker and less audacious partner Steve Blauner (P.J. Byrne). Schneider and Blauner were by no means the only industry players trying to fund radical causes and civil rights movements in the ’60s and ’70s, and The Big Sugar shrewdly highlights the limits of their solidarity—whether it be Schneider’s narcissistic, self-indulgent tendencies or Blauner retreating into the safety of his huge mansion when he’s scared of being implicated in Newton’s dilemma. Both prioritize their cushy Hollywood lifestyles over the struggle; it’s cool to be associated with radicals, but less appealing to become targets alongside them.

A key problem with The Big Cigar pitching itself as a “you won’t believe this true story”-type historical drama is that the actual Hollywood Heist seems fairly mundane, more of an accounting con than anything exciting. This means that, for all its Adam McKay-lite slick filmmaking, the over-egged, smarmy aesthetic feels a little out of place in a story of the feds persecuting a citizen for his anti-establishment resistance—as if the series hasn’t internalized Newton’s pleas for his producer friends to not fixate on the commercial angles of his story.

The series jumps about Newton’s timeline pretty freely, which keeps the pace quick but reorders the Party chronology to the point of light confusion. By the time we’re in full Flight to Cuba mode in the second half, The Big Cigar doesn’t find much to say about Newton’s fugitive status and escape via Mexico. Supporting characters do get a chance to shine though: Blauner turns out to be an unlikely ally after Schneider disappoints, and Byrne does a terrific job of portraying an average Hollywood hustler suddenly thrust into danger. As Agent Sydney Clark, a hippie-looking FBI G-man pursuing Newton and Fontaine, Marc Menchaca channels the energy of a true seething hater whose sole intention is catching his mark. It’s the type of un-nuanced but utterly compelling villain performance we don’t get enough of these days.

But despite having a lot of the right instincts to tell a good historical story and a gripping thriller caper, The Big Cigar struggles to synthesize the two—why not take a less glossy and rushed approach to Newton’s story, anchored by a sterling lead turn by Holland, rather than contorting his life through the prism of this Hollywood hustle? We’re left with a lightly over-inflated prestige miniseries that seems to assume it will make ripples in the cultural landscape without demonstrating how it can materially do that. Par for the course for Apple TV+, then.

The Big Cigar premieres Friday, May 17th on Apple TV+. 

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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