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Huey P. Newton Story: A Movie for Our Times

A Review by Frederick B. Hudson

The handsome man's hands tremor as he tells the audience what a geek is.

"A geek is a circus performer who has been hurt-but since he has been hurt and the circus is the only way he knows to make a living everybody feels sorry for him so they put him in a cage and throw a live chicken to him. The geek then chases the chicken around the cage and tears it apart and eats it. He throws one chicken bone to the audience. Cause he's the geek and the audience is the freaks."

The poignancy of the story is more telling since the man telling the story is himself in a cage and is surrounded by a live audience being filmed for a made for television movie, "A Huey P. Newton Story." The actor, Roger Guenveur Smith, has challenged himself by portraying the former Minister of Defense of the Black Panther Party in the tumultuous 60's and 70's. Newton and his associates donned black berets and leather jackets, put rifles and shotguns in their hands and shook a nation with a virile posture and program that threatened the docile image of other civil rights organizations .

Smith's task is a daunting one-Newton's speeches and writings revealed much of the hypocritical nature of a nation which assimilated much of many "inferior cultures"-the native American, the Black, the east Indian in its music, clothing, art, and religious rituals, but has credited little to those outside the mainstream pale.

The movie is scheduled to screen on Friday, November 30 at 8:45 p.m. and Sunday, December 2 at 1 p.m. at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan as part of this year's African Diaspora Film Festival. Directed by Spike Lee, it shows an enigmatic figure who challenged many, inspired much, and in the end left no clear blueprint to the justice and freedom many envisioned when they cried: Free Huey!" during his frequent jailings.

Roger Smith with the aid of Lee has transported a one man play written by Smith to a television format with considerable success. We see Smith who physically resembles Newton in a mesh cage holding court for a surrounding multiracial audience. Chain-smoking cigarettes which serve as props for Newton's anger and similes, shaking and trembling with anxiety and drug and alcohol reactions, Smith has assumed a new role for a former revolutionary-raconteur.

Shifting from proud, pugilistic pronouncements of militancy to poetic recollection of a brother who taught him lyricism in Shakespearean legends to poignant memories of a father who fled Louisiana to a better life in California to work three jobs to support seven children, Newton/Smith details his life goals from burglar to law student with wit and regret.

Aware of the temporal nature of revolutionary as a career path, he told a community resident who asked him for a job that he needed one too. His awareness of the need for a full blueprint to take people to a new economic and social level is heightened when he refers to the lack of organizational skills in the Black Panther Party that may have contributed to its demise.

His pride in the Party is undaunted, however, when he lists the achievements of the organization ignored by the mass media: bussing program to prisons for relatives, sickle cell testing, coat giveaways for cold residents. He saves his most potent venom of J. Edgar Hoover who in FBI files called the Panther Breakfast programs a major threat to national security. Why? Because they allowed the "infiltration" of ideas into ignored neighborhoods.

Newton/Smith allows his own vulnerability to seep into his production when he tells how he couldn't dance so he used philosophical questions as gambits to get girls' phone numbers. But he still tries to link with the current generation's fascination with "rap" by quoting a young man he met who spoke of his vocational goals as either a gangster or a rapper.

The piece tears a ripping cut to Newton's guts when he admits that leaders almost always disappoint their followers, leaving nothing but contempt. The Panther admits: "I am not a saint-I have my bad days and my good days. I get some Chinese food and when I eat it there is nothing left but two empty boxes and a fortune cookie I don't want to read."

The fortunes of his people Newton chooses to tells in riffs of song and staccato dance stops -he jokes that perhaps he could form a group called Huey P. Newton and the Famous Flames-Burn Baby Burn would have a new rebirth on the stage.

Lee's direction and staging adds much to the production-a revolving clock above the actor's spins Roman numerals around the black-clad back of the actor who has a blue field of sky with stars to meditate on with the rapt live viewers.

At the end of the performance, the revolutionary leader takes us to the end of his favorite movie, Black Orpheus, when a young man plays the guitar on a mountainside to make the sun come up. Huey Newton could not make the sun rise by himself, but this production makes us realize how much the human spirit can rise as we watch and wait for our own songs. See it.

For ticket information and information about the other 50 films from over 20 countries featured in this year's African Diaspora Festival from November 23 to December 9, please call 212-864-1760 or go to the website at www.nyadff.org.

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