uey P. Newton died violently at 47 years old, gunned down by a drug dealer in 1989, in Oakland, California.
Huey P. Newton was a freedom fighter, the co-founder, with Bobby Seale, of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, in Oakland during the 1960s. As the Party’s Minister of Defense, Newton helped to devise the Ten Point Plan, made public in October 1966, which included the following: Point number 1) We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our black and oppressed communities; point number 4) We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings; point number 5) We want decent education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society; and point number 10) We want land, bread, housing education, clothing, justice, peace, and people’s community control of modern technology. That is, they wanted basic civil rights, and they studied the law, carried legal guns, and alarmed J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
Huey P. Newton was born in 1942, the seventh son of a Louisiana sharecropper. He went to prison in 1967, convicted of manslaughter following a confrontation with Oakland police that left one officer dead. The Panthers’ subsequent nationwide “Free Huey” Campaign enlisted the help of black and white supporters, including celebrities like Marlon Brando. The California Court of Appeals reversed his conviction in 1971. And in 1974, he was accused of murdering a prostitute and escaped to Cuba for three years, before he came back to be acquitted of the charges.
Huey P. Newton earned a PhD in philosophy from the University of California in 1980, writing a dissertation entitled, “War Against the Panthers: Study of Repression in America.”
Huey P. Newton is the subject of Robert Guenveur Smith and Spike Lee’s new Black Starz! film, A Huey P. Newton Story. As its title suggests, the film offers but one story about the charismatic, hyper-energetic, stuttering, chain-smoking Newton, a document of an off-Broadway play performance, in which Smith, as Newton, is the only person on stage, seated for the most part in a wooden chair, dressed in black, reading poetry, proclaiming his philosophies, fretting about the possibilities, and decrying the way it all turned out.
The play was conceived by Smith as an unscripted, ever-evolving event, and so the film, shot before a live audience in November 2000, can only capture a single night’s improvisation. Using archival footage (a clip from Three the Hard Way when Newton gets on a jag about Jim Kelly, a soundtrack clip from William F. Buckley asking him to define “revolutionary suicide”), and sound effects (as in the play’s live performances, you can hear a typewriter when Newton lists the Ten Points), Lee’s movie is mesmerizing, disturbing, and provocative, much like its subject. His previous live performance films—John Leguizamo’s Freak for HBO, and the theatrical release The Original Kings of Comedy—have revealed that he has a fine ability to attune his own eye and technique to subjects who already have a scheme for self-presentation.
For this film, Lee and Smith collaborated, and have made some beautifully nuanced and also audacious choices: a “See Spot Run” text appears by Newton’s head as he reports that when he graduated from high school a “functional illiterate,” he was assigned an IQ of “74, or 75 on a good day,” and then spent years determinedly pursued his college and graduate degrees, wrote poetry and books, like Revolutionary Suicide. Or later, jazzing himself into a kind of dancing frenzy to Bob Dylan, Newton throws himself onto the floor and begins doing push-ups, smoking furiously all the while. The camera takes a low angle closeup shot of his face, sweating and pained, and Newton’s smoke puffs right at you. It’s unnerving, too intimate, and dead-on effective.
Throughout, Smith reveals his extraordinary ability to embody this vexed, vexing, and wholly fascinating character. His Newton is a bundle of nerves and justified paranoia, a feeling enhanced by Lee’s prowling, circling, and sharply angled camera shots. At times you’re looking at him through chain-link fencing, at others from overhead, and at still others, in dark silhouette, the smoke from his ever-present Kool forming a ghostly halo around his afro. He uses contemporary references to bring you along into his combination nightmare and reality, as he walks a tightrope of sanity and anxiety, ever on the verge of falling off. You know “Victoria’s Secret?” he asks. Well, Newton goes on, he was haunted by “J. Edgar’s secret,” the specter of “that bitch” sneaking up behind him in a nightie and high heels. And the Panthers, he says, carried legal guns, like the NRA and Charlton Heston.
He encourages the live audience to laugh along with him, to respond when he asks questions of them. They remain anonymous, in shadow, seated around Newton/Smith on the floor and above him in balcony seats, such that the stage resembles the kind of surveillance-ready architecture of a prison. And so, you feel him when he announces, despite his visible gift and thrill at being the center of attention, “I hate stages. I’m not an entertainer.” Indeed, Newton was not. He was a revolutionary, a brilliant thinker, and a man who was frustrated and anguished by his own insight into a legal and political system that was indeed designed to destroy him.
And indeed, Newton resisted performing for audiences, becoming an “icon” and a representative for the Cause, during his entire short life. That he’s caught here, literally and figuratively, is both ironic and fortunate for us.