‘The Big Cigar’ Writers Say the Show Gave Them the Chance to Educate People About the Black Panther Party

The production would pause filming for on-set discussions about race led by Don Cheadle and André Holland

André Holland as Huey P. Newton in "The Big Cigar" (Apple TV+)
André Holland as Huey P. Newton in "The Big Cigar" (Apple TV+)

Apple TV+ series “The Big Cigar” gave its writers the opportunity to educate the masses about the Black Panther Party’s societal impact and its service to Black and Brown communities, writers Janine Sherman Barrois and Jim Hecht said. They also shared the moments where they’d pause filming to have on-set discussions about race and the plight of the Black Panthers, with those conversations often led by lead André Holland and series director Don Cheadle.

“This was an opportunity to actually tell a piece of history, but also get this TikTok generation, which is not necessarily going to watch a biopic, sit down in their seat and maybe lean in and learn about the Panthers,” said Sherman Barrois, who served as showrunner and a writer on the series.

“A lot of people think Huey [P. Newton] and Bobby Seal were terrorists, or they were some radical organization with guns,” Sherman Barrois continued. “They do not know that not only did [Newton] police the police by opening a law book and confronting the government, but he then changed and focused the Party on the social programs, which were literally feeding pancakes to kids before they went to school, because he knew it was important for kids to be fed in order for them to be able to learn.”

“The Big Cigar” chronicles the action-packed true story of how Hollywood producer Bert Schneider attempted to cover up Black Panther Party cofounder Huey P. Newton fleeing to Cuba. Schneider tried making it appear as if the move was part of a film production titled “The Big Cigar.” Throughout the series’ plot, it touches on how racism impacted the mental health and well-being of Newton and other members of the Party.

The show has been a years-in-the-making process for writer and executive producer Hecht, who was intrigued by the story after learning about it in college at the University of Southern California (USC).

“I was a political junkie, I was captain of the debate team in college, especially with theory, democracy, social movements, civil disobedience and nonviolent civil disobedience,” Hecht said. “I came across Huey that way, as a guy who got into a law book, got an idea and went out and stood up to the police with a gun in the streets of Oakland in 1967. And it worked. He changed the whole agenda and discussion. He got things on the public agenda, and I was blown away by him. And then the things that he did with the social programs; I just thought the whole thing was remarkable.”

“The Big Cigar” is based on the 2012 Playboy article “The Big Cigar,” written by Joshuah Bearman, who also serves as an executive producer for the series. Bearman is a journalist with a history of producing articles that lead to media projects, including the Academy Award-winning “Argo.” Sherman Barrois, who’d always wanted to spotlight the efforts of the Black Panther Party, said she knew it was the right time when she got her eyes on Bearman’s article.

“I remember reading the article going, ‘Oh my gosh, I cannot believe this story actually occurred,” Sherman Barrois said. “I have always wanted to do a show about the Panthers. I thought this was a great way in. I questioned why it had taken over 50 years for a Panther story to be told. They deserve that epic piece, the way ‘The Crown’ is, that would do six years of their show.

“But, for obvious reasons, this has this caper element that allowed you to have this entertainment value, and also allowed us to write about and contextualize the rise of the Panthers and of Huey Newton,” she continued. “And I thought a lot of young people don’t know who he is. Nevertheless, what the Panthers have done, it was important to me. I choose projects, going, ‘If I’m not going to be involved in this, will I be OK for the rest of of my life?’ And for this one, I thought, ‘I won’t be OK,’ because it gave us a chance to inform people who are who are misinformed, because we’re not educated about the Panthers.”

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André Holland as Huey P. Newton in “The Big Cigar.” (Apple TV+)

“So I thought, ‘History only gets recorded, if we write about it. If we ignore it, then people continue to have the wrong history about it,’” Sherman Barrois added. “Or, as you know, as they’re doing right now, they tried to say we love slavery, they say we benefited from it, they try to rewrite it.”

Hecht and Sherman Barrois said stars Holland and Cheadle shared the same level of passion as they did when it came to telling viewers Newton’s story, often taking time to lead on-set conversations with the cast and crew about the Party, structural racism and how Huey’s role in it all ultimately affected his mental state.

“André, his focus was always on the community, on Black people. As an actor, he wants to always uplift the race,” Sherman Barrois said. “He knows he has a responsibility. He always questioned who was the audience for this. He wanted to make sure that we were speaking to Black kids, he wanted to make sure that the writing was infused with that, that the community would look at the piece and feel like we upheld Huey’s legacy and the legacy of the Panthers, but not that we told their whole story. I think he knows and and wanted to make sure, and he’s done interviews about this, the Panthers deserve a huge piece for their role in the civil rights movement, and for what they put on the line.”

“[André’s] a brilliant man,” she added. “He’s super smart. He’s super intense. Between him and Don Cheadle, I don’t know of any more intense set possible. There were times where we had to stop the camera, go to the side, sit with eight people, have a discussion about race, contextualize what was actually happening during this time and remind people to keep in the focus that Huey was waking up daily to Black bodies in the streets, kids getting killed, young people who had dreams to be doctors, lawyers, take over the world, die. We had to keep that focus as our North Star. So that was really led by André Holland’s rigor and his tenacity, and I would say by Don Cheadle’s rigor and tenacity. They’re loyal to the community.”

Chiming in, Hecht said, “André was there around the details and really filled in, and I think we all just learned a ton from working with that man.”

The six-episode limited series premiered on Apple TV+ on Friday, May 17 with two episodes. New episodes will air every Friday until June 14. The first two episodes were directed and executive produced by Don Cheadle.

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