---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 12 Feb 2002 16:42:24 -0800
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Huey P. Newton, live and onstage
Huey P. Newton, live and onstage
by Ron Jenkins The New York Times
Wednesday, February 13, 2002
The Black Panther returns
NEW YORK -- Huey P. Newton spent much of his life trying to escape the
constricting labels of "hero" and "criminal" affixed to him by political
friends and political enemies. So it's no surprise that "A Huey P. Newton
Story," which will be broadcast by PBS on Wednesday to commemorate the 60th
anniversary of his birth (on Sunday), is a work that defies categorization.
The film is Spike Lee's video adaptation of Roger Guenveur Smith's Obie
award-winning one-man show about Newton, a drug addict with a doctorate, a
black activist twice charged with murder and one of the most charismatic
and controversial figures in the black power movement.
Based on Newton's speeches, autobiographical writings and tape-recorded
conversations, Smith's play was first presented in New York by the New York
Shakespeare Festival in 1997. Lee's television version, which had its
premiere on the Black Starz premium cable channel in June, lies halfway
between documentary and fiction - fitting for a man who repeatedly
fictionalized his life story for public consumption. And Lee's rendition
further complicates the question of genre, inserting newsreel clips of
protest marchers and Newton's contemporaries - from Martin Luther King and
Marlon Brando to William F. Buckley and Richard Pryor - into Smith's
performance, which was filmed in front of an audience in a synagogue on the
Lower East Side of Manhattan.
"I try to stay away from boxing things into categories of fiction and
nonfiction," said Lee, sitting in his Madison Avenue office beneath a
framed set of Malcolm X postage stamps. "It's a film. People will learn a
lot about a complex man who was really trying to get at the so-called
democracy that this country's supposed to be about."
Newton founded the Black Panther Party with Bobby Seale in Oakland,
California, in 1966, combining socialism and black nationalism (and
students and ex-convicts) in a group that ran free schools and clinics and
also marched onto the floor of the California State Assembly carrying
rifles and shotguns. The party, like Newton, embodied America's
contradictory attitudes toward race. Charges of police brutality spurred
wealthy liberals to raise money for the Panther defense fund, giving rise
to the concept of radical chic. At the same time, law enforcement agencies
branded the group as amoral and dangerous. "The two things foremost in the
black militant's mind are sex and money," said an FBI memo in 1968.
In 1967 Newton was charged with murder when a traffic stop led to a scuffle
and the shooting of an Oakland policeman. Newton, who was also shot, said
he was unconscious when the officer was killed, but he was convicted of
manslaughter. Demonstrators around the country rallied to "Free Huey,"
until his conviction was overturned in 1970 on a technicality. The charges
were dismissed after two more trials ended in hung juries.
In Lee's film, the audience takes on the role of spectators in an operating
theater, intent on dissecting Newton's persona down to the raw bone. They
are visible, in silhouette, behind Smith in nearly every shot, rising above
the stage on three sides. They double as Newton's followers (some of them
wear the black beret of the Panthers) and also stand in for the television
viewers trying to make sense of Newton's elusive identities: killer, poet,
con man, visionary, lost soul.
Smith's performance captures Newton's own self-consciously crafted
performance in the role of incendiary black revolutionary. The actor
chain-smokes, repeats odd phrases with manic intensity and reveals the
physical degeneration caused by Newton's cocaine addiction through the
constant twitching of his right leg.
Indirectly, the film suggests that Newton, whose life was troubled to the
end - another murder charge in 1974, which was dismissed after two
mistrials; a gun conviction, for which he served nine months in jail in
1987, and his death at 47, shot in the head in an Oakland street - was "a
gangster with a conscience," a phrase used by Orson Welles to describe Macbeth.
The appearance of Welles in the film's visual collage is representative of
the approach Lee and Smith have taken in portraying the complexity of
Newton's character and its relationship to the larger tapestry of American
popular culture. "Macbeth" was one of Newton's favorite plays, and Smith's
script has Newton's quoting of Shakespeare's text as a running motif. So
when a voice in one of the newsreels calls Newton a gangster, Lee inserts
Welles's qualifying remark as a response.
Repeated throughout the program, this pattern of dueling film clips
originated with the play's Obie-winning sound design, by Mark Anthony
Thompson. But Lee gives the device a visual dimension that places Newton in
a maelstrom of cultural reference points. Buckley invites Newton onto his
"Firing Line" program and calls him incoherent. Pryor gives Newton a warm
introduction. Newton critiques "Dick and Jane" and "Little Black Sambo" as
the camera lingers on pages from these schoolroom texts. Newton comments
with equal enthusiasm on scenes from Vincent Price's "Theater of Blood" and
the Brazilian art film "Black Orpheus." A black orator says Newton should
be honored by a national holiday. Other voices are horrified by the
proposal, claiming that he scares people. The idea pleases Newton, who
says: "Any time a black man in America stands up against the slave
mentality, he's going to scare some white people. Just ask Paul Robeson."
Sometimes the give and take between Smith and the audience assumes the form
of courtroom drama. At other times it resembles a revival meeting. "We let
the audience be the jury," Lee said. "Newton is his own defense lawyer,
and he's stating his case to the audience. Not just to the ones who were
there when we were shooting it, but to the people who are seeing this on
television, too. The whole thing is very connected to the African-American
experience of call and response, so you have this interaction between the
audience and the performer." Smith says the viewer participation is crucial
to the unfolding of Newton's character. "The audience has always been very
active in the stage play in terms of sparking, questioning and commenting,"
he said by telephone from his home in Los Angeles. "I think their presence
is effective with both virtual silence and with cacophony. Because Huey was
always either alienated or engaged. In the performance we documented for
the film, the audience starts off timidly, but eventually becomes
extraordinarily involved. When Huey says he wants to be remembered as
someone who is loved, a woman shouts out, 'We do love you,' and a man
yells, 'We miss you too.' That could never be scripted."
Audience members are also integrated into the performance through music.
Smith's Newton refers to some of his favorite rap, rock, and pop songs,
eliciting spontaneous vocal accompaniment from the crowd on tunes made
famous by Wilson Pickett and Martha and the Vandellas. By presenting Newton
in the context of the pop culture that defined his generation, Lee and
Smith turn "A Huey P. Newton Story" into a more broadly representative
narrative, raising questions about racism and the frustrations of
Ron Jenkins, a professor of theater at Wesleyan University is the author of
"Artful Laughter: Dario Fo and Franca Rame."
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