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A Huey P. Newton Story Reviews

Roger Guenveur Smith (SUMMER OF SAM, HE GOT GAME) taps in deep as Huey Newton, blazing through this mesmerizing performance piece based on the still-controversial life of one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. Assailing the audience with equal parts inner-city charm and fear-raising militancy, Smith begins not a story, but a tapestry of Newton’s life. He brings alive the roots of Newton's strict revolutionary morals, atypical social shortcomings and his sometimes amusing, hostile reflections on contemporary society. Smith’s Newton is supernatural: his voice and nervous mannerisms make it hard to sit still and watch a deeply private man share his abbreviated life. The finely nuanced performance struggles between Huey’s fragile, dark irony and his exacting sense of purpose, challenging us to befriend the man who became a panther, was caged, freed, and caged again by history’s selective memory. The production, adapted from the stage by Spike Lee (MALCOLM X, BAMBOOZLED), does not interfere with the exceptional qualities of both performer and subject. Lee frames the opening sequence with familiar, gritty news clips and interviews from the volatile 1960s, inadvertently flattening the film's potential to outrage and educate. Here, as in the original stage production, Smith relies on the audience’s memory, anger and sense of community to explore a wide range of conflicting facts and emotions. The ambivalent trust forged between performer and audience as they journey through Newton’s story is kinetic and revealing of both sides. This interactive aspect of the story translates well to film but works best when the audience is not “prepped” by a historical montage. From the foreshadowing barrage of paparazzi flashes to Newton’s rendition of “Tighten Up” as a choral prayer for latter day revolutionaries, this story is a must for both Newton and Smith fans alike.