Spike Lee: A Huey P. Newton Story (2001) - Can't Stop the Movies
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8Mar/150

Spike Lee: A Huey P. Newton Story (2001)

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Roger Guenveur Smith, a longtime performer in Spike Lee's films, wrote and performed a one-man show about the private fears, insecurities, hope, and rage of Huey P. Newton.  Huey was one of the co-founders of The Black Panther Party in 1966, led demonstrations and fought existing laws in the name of civil freedom, and eventually became Dr. Newton by getting his Ph.D in Social Science.  Spike Lee directs A Huey P. Newton Story, which received a Peabody award, "For exploring events from our past in a provocative, challenging and enlightening manner..."

Currently, A Huey P. Newton Story is available in-full on Youtube.

Gotta face it somehowA Huey P. Newton Story is an interesting entry in Spike Lee's line of performance films, especially when considered against Freak. The latter was a mostly a “traditional” stage performance, with basic on-stage props and camerawork that, while maintaining more control over the audience than the theatrical crowd would have been subject to, still viewed Leguizamo mostly from the front (ie, the position of the theatrical crowd)—A Huey P. Newton Story see's Roger Guenveur Smith from more cinematic angles, in constantly altered lighting and focus, sometimes performing against a backdrop of the studio audience (who we rarely see in anything other than dark outlines) and others against projected footage of the times he's recalling. Where Leguizamo evokes his specific world by drawing recognizable characters and sketches for the audience, Guenveur Smith jumps immediately into Newton's ideology, hitting moments in his personal history non-chronologically as needed—if the audience doesn't know the historical basics going in, that's their problem.

It's easy to see why Spike found Guenveur Smith's one-man show so ripe for production—it offers a chance to cinematically represent a mindset and an outlook from which such strong ideology extended. More than any other film since—and including in some ways—Malcolm X, A Huey P. Newton Story seems to perfectly match laser-focused, unassailably articulated anger with representations of strength and empowerment. The major strength of Guenveur's performance is the way he embodies Newton's unstoppable drive to redefine (often historically) wrong representations used to oppress—the major strength of Spike's production is how he uses cinematic techniques and stock footage (a talk show where a host tells him “people are afraid of you, Huey” works at an especially successful moment) to reflect Newton's “scary” persona before yielding formal control over to Guenveur Smith, who undercuts these impressions with explanations of his actual philosophy and examples of how it was put into action.

I don't think this is a flawless movie—and I have a feeling you'll like it more than me in the end—but it does seem like an incredibly important one for Lee, especially at a point where he's working through a transition from 100% fictional narratives into more documentary territory.‏

Another snuffed outI'd like to offer some wit to rebuff your theory that I'd like it more than you, but I'd be lying to you and myself. From frame one to the closing montage, Guenveur Smith's show gripped me completely. What surprised me the most and, I admit, made me feel a bit ashamed is how involved I was despite how little I know about Newton. I know it may seem a bit silly to feel shame because of my lack of knowledge when it comes to Newton, but considering how much I respect Malcolm X and despair in hearing his family's recent protests about how he is being written out of history, I kept feeling this gnawing irresponsibility for not knowing more.

What caught me so off-guard is how Smith's show feeds off of my ignorance. You mentioned how Smith hits his personal problem non-chronologically but your description would not prepare any of our readers for exactly how much information Smith hits in any two minutes of A Huey P. Newton Story. Smith's delivery is like if we asked Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse Five to edit a history of Newton at Michael Bay speed. There were moments I was actually worried about Smith because of how quickly and sometimes violently the words came from his mouth, forming connections between poetry, his family, politics, God's silence, and then back to the crowd in a semi-accusatory yet joking fashion for not making these connections without him.

Nothing encapsulates this daredevil performance more than when he is talking about how J. Edgar Hoover saw grits as a form of black infiltration into good American society and Guenveur Smith's cigarette goes out. Without missing a beat he furiously lights a match and delivers individual words as machine gun rounds as he takes the match and puffs his cigarette back to life. But it's the silences which really hammered the show down for me, because any time he talks about his family he goes stone cold. He starts fondly recalling a moment his father was standing behind a chain-link fence with a Bible but as soon as he remembers his dad crying when Newton got out of prison Guenveur Smith goes cold, his eyes distant and painful, and we watch in awe as his brain scrambles for a topic to jump to so he doesn't have to think about his family again. Those moments hurt the most, and are also the few times Spike let's his camera stop so we can watch Smith have this moment of mournful silence.‏

Give me a moment to breatheTiny Kyle CommentaryThe description, “Smith's delivery is like if we asked Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse Five to edit a history of Newton at Michael Bay speed” is great, so I won't try to add anything to that. I'm with you on the potentially shameful effect that results from the way Guenveur Smith and Spike position Newton to an ignorant audience, though—the one great benefit of watching the film today is that I could stop it occasionally and do some quick research if I felt like I had totally lost my grounding. I tried to read up a bit on Newton before watching A Huey P. Newton Story, but that just ended up underscoring my utter lack of knowledge while watching the film—I wish I'd had the time and foresight to order his autobiography ahead of time, though I definitely did so after the fact.

That's also the point where I teeter back and forth over the movie's greatness just a little—I love that it managed to distill such an intense, strong personal essence and ideology into less than 90 minutes, but there were times that I felt like moments would have stronger resonance if even a little more historical and social context was given. On one hand—and this is the side of the line I'd fall on if I had to pick one right at this moment—it's unfair and kind of disgustingly privileged to want Guenveur Smith and Lee to cater to an audience whose ignorance on the subject matter could have easily been rectified at any point of their own volition. But on the other, given the chance to introduce an ignorant audience to such an important figure, is it doing that person justice to leave out some of the basic biographical/historical information needed to situate their ideology (and its importance) in a contemporary timeline?

This is a question we haven't touched on a lot, but one that I think is actually pretty important to Spike's filmography. He's said things to the effect that he's making movies for informed audiences—that he doesn't feel the responsibility for his films to play Black History Hour for those who are uninformed; that he wants to represent the reality of contemporary life for African Americans, not work within the stereotypical views white audiences were/are more comfortable and familiar with. And considering the film in these terms, he's obviously correct in launching enthusiastically straight into Newton's life without the bumpers up.

But the effect of watching the film still confirms that original question—there's a reflection of one's own ignorance that changes your engagement with the material (not necessarily for the worse), and I'd be interested to go back and look more extensively at the public receptions of some of Spike's earlier films to see how this potential divide (specifically among the almost entirely white critical audience) affected opinions.‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryMy approach was different. Instead of pausing the film when I didn't recognize something I just made a note so I could do research after the film was complete. This may have played a factor into why I liked the film more than you - I just let Guenveur Smith's performance wash over me from start to finish while you stopped to research as needed. It's also why I may feel a bit more ashamed for not knowing as much and you are more critical of the way Spike and Guenveur Smith just launch into Newton's life.

Divorcing what knowledge we do or don't possess about Newton for a moment, this is Spike's most energetically shot film yet. The Michael Bay comparison I brought up in relation to Smith's performance almost goes for Spike as well. Spike at least let's us linger long enough on Smith as Newton's state long enough to catch up a bit with the dialogue before cutting to the next shot. The effect reminded me of what Stan Brakhage does with his films, which are mostly painted and played at a speed where the image is as important as the after-image, or what gets burned in your retina when you close your eyes. Guenveur Smith and Spike's approach feels like this but on a much more emotional wavelength, giving us this one snapshot of Newton's frame of mind before finding the slightest connection to jump to the next.

The emotionally disorienting effect plays into the angles Spike uses to film Guenveur Smith as well. When we discussed Freak, I mentioned how Spike never cut to a shot which had John Leguizamo off-center or with his face hidden. Here, whenever Smith is lined up for a center-framed close up it's always uncomfortably close or when he's angrily lighting another cigarette. The rest of the time the camera makes him a prisoner of the frame, squeezing him into tiny corners so his words can echo to a crowd of shadows lined up behind a chain link fence. This fits in with the way the media of the time, other civil rights groups, and the slow march of history treated Newton. Everyone was trying to squeeze him into an easy-to-define role so the camera keeps trying to do the same, only to have his emotions bubble up and shift the view yet again. Newton has a "seizure" in the middle of the film which fits in with this as clips of different programs over decades of television each tell him what he is.‏

SeizureTiny Kyle CommentaryThe sometimes ironic and contradictory use of news clips and historical footage is really strong, and reminds me of a similar move early on in Four Little Girls, where Spike displays violent and undeniably ugly images of Birmingham against the words of an interviewee who is describing the time and place as “wonderful.” Spike is concerned with redefining and correcting historical representations here, and the form meshes well with the content itself.

I also like how Spike introduces the film with a montage of historical footage that doesn't quite establish a solid context around Newton's life, but does position several different representations of Newton as Public/Cultural Figure. We're first encountering him through these various filters—Black Panther supporters, connection with and possible opposition to other major Civil Rights figures, political opposition, and white supporters—all of whom have at least a slightly different relationship to the persona they're evoking with Newton's name and association.

Only after this initial period do we encounter Newton himself (in the form of Guenveur Smith's performance), speaking into a screeching, just-turned-on microphone against a sea of photographers' flashbulbs. Right from the start, he's attempting to define himself against a wave of preconceptions, and this works as a nice reminder that no figure of such cultural and historical importance can be represented definitively.‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentaryYou mentioned at the start that this is another step of Spike's transitioning from fictional narrative to documentary films. I'd like to clarify that a bit, since the first Spike Lee documentary we saw was Four Little Girls, which is about as strong as documentaries get. What happened is more of a broadening of Spike's skills as he went from narrative feature-length films to documentaries and, this is crucial, concert or stage shows. I want to make the difference between a concert or stage show versus documentary clear because they are still different formats, and the difference between Freak and A Huey P. Newton Story shows how he applies his cinema skills fully to the concert and stage. The Original Kings of Comedy was the true bridge here with Spike experimenting with the performers personalities in between sets in a way he didn't have the freedom to with Freak.

This is interesting for me because my favorite Spike Lee films are a three-way tie between his narrative, documentary, and concert films. With narrative it's Do the Right Thing, documentary it's When the Levees Broke, and concert it's Passing Strange. A Huey P. Newton Story shows just how much more cinematic he was able to make the concert experience, and the through line from Freak to Passing Strange is all the clearer now. All of this goes to show just how undervalued Spike is as an artist when he's still primarily known for a couple of films but worked in disparate venues with his camera and - like all great Spike films - I'm left wanting to know more than when I came in.

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Posted by Andrew

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