Tune in Tonight: ‘Big Cigar’: A madcap tale of radical chic

Now streaming on Apple TV+, “The Big Cigar” offers a Hollywood take on the Black Panthers in every sense of the word. The first episode explains the radicalization of Huey P. Newton (Andre Holland). A transplant to the Bay Area from the rural South, he finds California no more tolerant than the old Confederacy. After witnessing and experiencing brutal treatment at the hands of the police, he co-founds the Black Panther Party to protect Black citizens from harassment.

As he explains in a voiceover, the sight of Black men embracing weapons, confronting authorities and citing the Second Amendment quickly turned conservative Californians like Gov. Ronald Reagan into enthusiastic proponents of gun control.

“Cigar” wastes no time thrusting the audience into the tumult of the times. This crash course in 1960s radicalism is undercut by the series’ production values. Moments of angry confrontation and radical jargon take place on pristine streets, a kind of Disneyfied version of a ghetto distilled through decades of nostalgia and interpretation.

“Cigar” becomes a real Hollywood production when Newton encounters producer Bert Schneider (Alessandro Nivola).

For a brief moment, Schneider possessed a kind of creative Midas touch that birthed the New Cinema of the 1970s. He would go from producing “The Monkees” for NBC to films including “Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces” and “The Last Picture Show.”

His success coincided with his embrace of leftist politics. His career and political zeal reached a radical crescendo at the 1975 Oscars ceremony. When accepting the Best Documentary Oscar for the 1974 anti-war film “Hearts and Minds,” he saluted the Communist victory in the Vietnam War taking place at that very time with the fall of Saigon, an event seen by many as a painful symbol of American humiliation. Emotions ran so high that figures from old Hollywood, including Frank Sinatra, all but took over the stage, repudiating Schneider’s remarks, much to the chagrin of new Hollywood figures, including Warren Beatty. It was easily the wildest and most controversial night in Oscar’s long history.

Over six episodes, “Cigar” recalls the interaction between Newton and his radical-chic patron, culminating in Schneider’s efforts to sneak Newton out of the country while Newton was facing charges of killing a prostitute, a case Newton dismissed as a frameup.

“Cigar” explores a short, strange period when celebrities, including Schneider, John Lennon and Leonard Bernstein, embraced radical politics from the comfort of their palatial digs while real radicals, including Fred Hampton and George Jackson, were being shot down. “Cigar” places the emphasis on the madcap, as Schneider creates a fake film production to hide his efforts to secrete Newton out of the country to the safe haven of Communist Cuba.

As recalled in the magazine article by Joshuah Bearman (“Argo”) that forms the basis for this series, these shaggy and highly improvised plans go sideways very quickly.

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