The Micheaux Film Festival

Micheaux Film Festival Interview

with Janine Sherman Barrois  (Executive Producer, Writer, and Showrunner)

Apple TV+ The Big Cigar (Now Streaming)

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Screening of AppleTv+ The Big Cigar
I thought the story was too good to be true. Late one night while sitting on the set of Claws, the show I was writing and showrunning at the time, I remember reading the article and telling the crew the story. No one could believe it. I started pitching out lines from Josh’s fascinating article about how they made a fake movie to get Huey Newton, the leader of the Black Panthers, out of the country. Ever since I went to Howard University, I wanted to write a Panthers story. People have tried for years. I thought this was a stellar way to do it. It would give you the entertainment ride of a caper while at the same time also contextualizing the epic rise and contributions of Huey and the Black Panther Party to the Civil Rights Movement. At the time, I was also working on another biopic, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madame CJ Walker. I knew how hard biopics were to get made, but I thought this was a unique approach to telling Huey’s story and well worth the uphill battle.
We developed the pitch and the first episode for over a year. When Jim’s pilot script came in, it was fantastic. Then I assembled a mini-room of several brilliant writers to help execute the first three episodes and write the bible for the show. Then 7 months later, we assembled another room to write the final three episodes. As the showrunner and a writer on the project, it was important for me that the rest of the writers we hired were Black and came with distinct interests and POVs about this period of history and Huey. Some had scholarly knowledge of the revolutionaries; some knew Black Panthers; others had worked on or developed shows about the Civil Rights movement. So there was passion in the room and a desire to make sure Huey and the Panthers’ legacies were upheld and never overshadowed by Bert and Hollywood. With that gaze and cultural rigor, we hoped to demystify the Panthers who are often vilified by the media as terrorists or radicals and the why is never investigated. We wanted to show what was happening during this time period. Huey and Bobby Seale were sick of pervasive police violence against Black people around the country so literally opened up a law book and used it to their benefit. They decided to carry arms and police the police in hopes that this would decrease the violence against us. It was this direct action taking effect all over Oakland, and the subsequent carrying of guns on the State Capitol floor, that made Ronald Reagan and the Right believe in gun control for the first time. Once we dramatized that, we wanted to show how the Party grew and explore inter-party relationships and disputes, including Huey’s dynamic with Bobby Seale, Little Bobby, Eldridge Cleaver, Gwen Fontaine, and the Panther women. We also wanted to show how Huey desired to shift the Party’s focus to the social engagements, concentrating on things like the Breakfast Program which ensured that kids had food before going to school. This action, feeding pancakes to kids, caused Huey to become enemy number one to the FBI. They began ramping up their COINTELPRO tactics against him which eventually forced him to come to Hollywood, evade the Feds, and flee into exile in Cuba. Getting underneath that spine was our job as writers.
Some of the story was too good to be true. But it was. The boat hit a Jesus statue. There was a shootout at Canter’s. A guy who worked on the Che biopic was in with the Russian Mob and offered to get Huey out of the country. Richard Pryor wanted to play Huey and they were working on a screenplay together. All that really happened, but we knew we had to pay homage to the Black Panthers. This was the main focus for me, Jim, and the rest of the writers and was further pushed and challenged by Don Cheadle, the director and EP of the first two episodes. Don drove us to deepen the layers of Huey’s complicated legacy and unapologetic nature with meticulous rigor as did André Holland, the brilliant actor who played Huey.
The main challenge we had as writers was at no time did we want to equate the legacy of the Black Panther Party with that of Hollywood. While a political movement was unfolding in Hollywood with the release of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate in 1967, jumpstarting the counter-culture movement, racial turmoil was also sweeping the nation. What was happening in Oakland, and the blood on the streets, was incomprehensible. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X had been assassinated. There were growing tensions as Black people fought for Civil Rights. So while we were able to tell parts of this story, it is just the tip of the iceberg. The Black Panthers deserve their own in-depth series in the vein of The Crown, an epic six season series that tells the full story of their rise and extraordinary contributions in fighting for the rights of Black people. It was a challenge to stick to the story of just this snapshot of time.
Janine Sherman Barrois (Executive Producer, Writer, and Showrunner)
Q&A of The Big Cigar
It was important to all the writers to reveal the often contradictory layers within all of the characters. We wanted to show Huey’s unapologetic nature, his astute intellect, and his unparalleled brilliance, but also the demons that festered inside him as he was relentlessly pursued by the FBI. That paranoia sparked an addiction, but we never wanted it to overshadow his complexity and vision for the Black community. André Holland embodied Huey in such a profound way, taking on all of his complications and brilliance. For Bert Schneider, we wanted to show a man of privilege—his father and brother both ran Columbia Pictures. His success skyrocketed with iconic films Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show. We wanted you to see that even though Bert was at the top of his game in Hollywood, he was not immune to what was happening around the country. He depicted atrocities of the Vietnam war in his documentary, Heart & Minds. He also saw the inequities in the Black community and wanted to assist Huey in getting the Black Panthers’ message out to the world through film and TV. Bert knew Huey was a great revolutionary with a vision and was profoundly moved by Huey putting his body on the line for his community. I feel Alessandro Nivola encompassed that charm and ease with grace, while also showing Bert’s inner struggle between being a company man like his father or daring to upend the status quo. And as for the women of the party, particularly Gwen Fontaine played by Tiffany Boone, we wanted to show how she, with incredible courage, was a sounding board and shoulder for Huey. She fought against oppression while also protecting the ultimate leader of the struggle.
Working with Jim and Josh was one of the most profound experiences of my life. This was a labor of love. It was Jim’s thesis project over 20 years ago at USC. It’s been over 10 years since Josh wrote the article. I have been on this project for six years. As a showrunner, I commend all of the writers who dedicated their hearts to this, and the department heads who showed up every day with such immense intensity in order to bring this story to life. Don Cheadle, one of the greatest directors I have ever worked with, created a visual style with our first block DP, Suki Medencevic, that really sets the piece apart. Don’s ability to work with actors was unparalleled, as witnessed by the tour-de-force performance of André Holland and the rest of the stellar cast. Don set the look that he then handed to the directors of the next two episode blocks, Damon Thomas and Tiffany Johnson, who took his vision and built on it with their own distinct talents and artistic eyes. Producers Dan Kaplow and Adam Ben Frank helped me make this piece in Toronto and in Colombia, through rainstorms and dead of summer heat. And finally, our Colombian crew, led by Jaguar Bite’s phenomenal producing team, Juan Pablo Solano and Simón Beltrán. Everyone on this cast and crew worked tirelessly to bring Huey and the Panthers’ story to the screen.
Jim and I, with all the writers, built tension by continuously showing the FBI’s relentless pursuit of Huey Newton while also showing how the Russian mob was hilariously after him as well. We took liberties in places but really tried to dramatize the constant pursuit of Huey, including the unwavering media firestorm and all the looming warrants. The FBI’s COINTELPRO tactics were non-stop as they tried to dismantle and infiltrate the Black Panther Party. When Huey gets to Mexico, we added in the Federales’ chase after him.
The theme of revolution runs throughout the piece. Huey and the Black Panther Party put their bodies on the line in order to make change and force the United States to see us and give us, as Black people, the fundamental rights we deserve. That theme of change, of asking a system for more, is still an ongoing struggle for us and I think that will ring true to people who see it. Who are you? What do you stand for? We need to look back at history and remember what Black people did for our community in the past to win the rights we have now: staging sit-ins and boycotts for Civil Rights, dismantling separate but equal, integrating schools, fighting against redlining, ending slavery… We have to understand that change in this country has always been preceded by fighting and litigation and always pursued by those who were willing to take risks. People willing to make good trouble: Huey and the Panthers, Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner all stepping out of their comfort zone. Activism then and now requires everyone to get involved. Lastly, the theme of love — Black love and friendship — is a huge part of the series. You see it with Huey and his father, played by the incomparable Glynn Turman; between Huey and his complex friendship with Party co-founder Bobby Seale, played by Jordane Christie; and between Huey and Teressa Dixon, played Moses Ingram. She was a fictional character but an homage to the strong, fearless Black women who were the backbone to the party, including Gwen Fontaine. As a Panther woman, Gwen risked her life, and possibly never seeing her kids again, by going with Huey on this daring journey to Cuba. That love depicted between the two of them is the heart of the show.
Janine Sherman Barrois (Executive Producer, Writer, and Showrunner)
Glynn Turman and Jordane Christie
I am thrilled that we are finally getting the piece out there. We have all worked so hard for so long. It’s a tricky tone, but we feel it’s a unique way to upend the biopic and make it entertaining as well. The best part of the experience for all of the Executive Producers was screening the series for Fredrika Newton, who runs the Huey P. Newton Foundation and museum in Oakland. She carries the torch daily, walking the walk and continuing to push for the rights of Black people. To see her moved from watching this piece was the greatest feeling in the world. But if the audience takes anything away from our show and from the legacy of her and her husband, Huey P. Newton, it’s to get involved. We have the country we fight for. We get the world we envision. But it takes work to make change, and all of our efforts are needed. As you know, the great Oscar Micheaux said, “We want to see our lives dramatized on the screen as we are living it, the same as other people, around the world.” The Big Cigar may have taken over 50 years to make, but on May 17th, it finally gets its due on AppleTV+. Can’t wait for you to watch.

Check Micheaux Film Festival Interview with

Janine Sherman Barrois (Executive Producer, Writer, and Showrunner)