A Huey P. Newton Story started out as a stage written and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith, one of the most dynamic American actors working today, for a Philadelphia theatrical festival. Spike Lee recorded one of Smith’s performances for TV. I first saw it on public television a year ago, and try to revisit it every year.
Spike Lee’s A Huey P. Newton Story (2001) is so antsy and electric that it threatens to fly apart at any and every second. Roger Guenveur Smith plays Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton as a radical philosopher whose mouth moves almost as quickly as his mind, and who rushes headlong through political commentary, cultural allusions, family life, and downhome wit. For the first ten minutes, I held onto the movie for dear life, hoping the breakneck speed would dissipate.
It doesn’t, quite. The film (well, digital video) moves in lurches and lunges. Mostly, this tactic works, adding poignancy to scenes and interrupting rhythms at the most acute, painful points. Smith’s performance is brilliant, punctuating every thought with the puff of a cigarette (He goes through two packs of Kool menthols in this 90-minute movie.), and director Lee is merely playing catch-up with the actor. Lee’s editing moves as fast as Smith’s motormouth and, like Newton with his allusions, Lee peppers the movie with documentary footage, music, and sound effects.
Although there were revelations about the Black Panther Party throughout the movie, A Huey P. Newton Story never feels didactic. It’s not a history lesson, but a riveting character study of a heroic man caged in by demons both external (racism) and internal (drug addiction). Much of this credit belongs to Lee and his crew. Lee usually works best when working with a broad canvas—multiple plot strands, lots of characters, cultural commentary coming at you from all sides. He can’t keep myself from making political points in his movies, from making broader commentary, even if the ideas are half-cooked or if they don’t fit the dimensions of the film he’s making at the time. He crams, as if he’s got to stuff every single thing he’s thinking about into whatever project he’s working on. For that reason, his large-scope films (Do the Right Thing, Summer of Sam, Jungle Fever, Get On the Bus), where he’s got room to stretch out, are better than his often abysmal character studies (Crooklyn, Girl 6, Mo’ Betta Blues).
In A Huey P. Newton Story, however, his approach works amazingly well, because his cinematic approach reflects Smith’s characterization of Newton. In the movie, which is a recording of a live theatrical performance, Newton spends most of his time sitting in a chair, itching to stretch his legs, talking about his angry life and times. He’s stuck on a small stage, surrounded on all sides by fencing. He’s trapped, but his mind is constantly struggling against his constraints, making wild jokes and weird digressions that hone in on sharp points when you least expect it.
Lee’s cinema mirrors Smith’s acting. Lee is caged in, too, by the theatrical structure, but it’s his attempts to break free that are most engaging—and most encouraging for his growth as a filmmaker. He gets to create a barrage of ideas and imagery, as always, but finally does it through a character and setting that are perfectly attuned to his spirit.
(Come to think of it, Lee’s most vibrant recent film was 2000’s The Original Kings of Comedy, a live recording of a stand-up comedy tour. Other people got to do most of the talking there, too—and it was also stagebound.)
Finally, Newton ends up letting someone else do the talking as well. The movie’s penultimate lines are the “sound and fury” lines from act 5, scene 5 of Macbeth. They are as glorious and unsettling here as they are in Shakespeare’s play. The quote underscores one of the movie’s major points—for all the black radicalism in Newton’s soul, Shakespeare and Plato constituted his intellectual development as much as Malcolm X did. And for all the antagonism against white folks, Newton’s anxieties—namely, the feeling of being trapped inside a life you didn’t entirely make for yourself—are those of every white person in the theater audience as well. We are Huey P. Newton, and Huey P. Newton is us.