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With: Roger Guenveur Smith
Written by: Roger Guenveur Smith
Directed by: Spike Lee
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 86
Date: 06/08/2001

A Huey P. Newton Story (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Return of the Black Panther

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's pretty clear by now that, though Spike Lee blew us all away in 1989 with his masterpiece Do the Right Thing, he's not done so again since. Each of his films is, at the very least, interesting and inventive and some are quite good. But he's struggled to deliver something as great as that early triumph.

Recently he's adopted the tactic of retreating to small TV productions and documentaries to rest and regroup. The heartbreaking documentary 4 Little Girls (1997) gave Lee enough critical cred to move on with the more expensive feature He Got Game, and The Original Kings of Comedy opened the door for the bold and complex Bamboozled.

Both 4 Little Girls and The Original Kings of Comedy lacked Lee's trademark style, but his newest TV project, A Huey P. Newton Story, broadcasting tonight at 9 p.m. on PBS in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of Newton's birth, melds a little more closely with his inventive cinematic vision.

That's not surprising, considering that the show's creator, Roger Guenveur Smith, has worked with Lee many times, appearing in Do the Right Thing and six other Spike Lee "joints."

Smith's one-man show, A Huey P. Newton Story, consists of the actor sitting in a chair and smoking Kools for most of its 90 minutes -- he gets up once for a funky dance routine to a Bob Dylan number halfway through -- with an audience surrounding him on two levels on at least three sides (we can see their silhouettes).

Taking a cue from Jonathan Demme's innovative filming of Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia (1987), Lee sets up dozens of camera angles from every conceivable position, and jumps around to the jittery rhythm of Smith's speech. He also uses blue-screen effects to splice in film clips behind the actor's head, keeping him in the foreground for various newsreel clips, including Malcolm X, Orson Welles as Macbeth, and a scene from Black Orpheus (1959), one of Newton's favorite films.

I won't profess to be familiar with the real-life Newton's speech and behavior patterns, but Smith creates a more than convincing persona. Though at first, Smith's performance seems overly theatrical, pitched at his stage audience but far too big for the movie camera.

But Smith has clearly done his homework on Newton, the leader of the Black Panthers, and one of the most outspoken leaders in African-American history. Smith presents a fairly battered Newton, one that spent three years in solitary confinement. ("I learned the benefits of meditation," he says, adding quickly "I also learned the benefits of masturbation.") He stammers, talks with an unusually nervous speed to establish Newton's real-life drug addiction, repeats himself, and stops occasionally to re-light his chain of cigarettes.

Smiths' Newton seems amused that the FBI keeps "thousands" of pages about him in their files and imagines that he hears J. Edgar Hoover sneaking up on him in high heels. He leads the audience in a rendition of "Tighten Up," by Archie Bell and the Drells. ("What the hell's a 'drell'?" he asks.) And that Dylan tune, "Ballad of a Thin Man," was a particular obsession of the real-life Newton.

Through these anecdotes and other stories -- tales of his childhood, thoughts on the state of the world -- we get glimpses of Newton's fiery side, the man who stirred up so much hatred among conservatives, the man we know from the famous photograph -- wearing the black beret, sitting in the wicker chair and clutching the rifle at his side.

All in all, Smith provides an extraordinary, well-rounded portrait of a complex man, a man who was not above adding bits of misinformation to pump up his own legend.

By the film's end I was convinced that A Huey P. Newton Story was too good for TV. The experience was so moving and larger-than-life that I wanted to be in a darkened theater, if only to get closer to Newton. Regardless, the film represents a new triumph for Lee, one that comes closer to Do the Right Thing than nearly anything else in his career.

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