Award-winning actor and writer Roger Guenveur Smith was at UC Riverside last week for a screening of “A Huey P. Newton Story,” a one-man film that depicts the personal side of the deceased Black Panther Party co-founder. The screening, hosted by the African Student Programs (ASP) office in celebration of Black History Month, concluded with a question and answer session. “A Huey P. Newton Story” is Director Spike Lee’s film adaptation of the 1996 play that Smith both wrote and starred in. Smith plays Newton in both the play and film.

The entire film takes place on a dark stage in which Smith’s character sits alone and discusses topics ranging from the government’s unfair targeting of the Black Panther Party (BBP) to Newton’s family life.  The film delved into the political ideologies of Newton’s life, as represented by the BBP’s 10-point program; the demands of the program included the release of all incarcerated African Americans and a subsequent re-trial by jury, an end to police brutality toward African Americans, exemption of African Americans from military service and general demands for justice.  The history of the BBP was supplemented with an insight into the organization’s less-known aspects—namely, the BBP’s charitable and philanthropic endeavors such as free ambulance services, clothes donations, transportation for jail visits and free breakfast meals.

During the question and answer session, Smith revealed that his motivation for creating the play stemmed from his ignorance of Huey P. Newton, who was murdered in 1989 at the age of 47. “We look at these figures who are pumped up to be larger than life. Then we deflate them and in doing so the real people [behind the leaders] can emerge,” stated Smith. The film sheds light on Newton’s eccentric mannerisms and shy personality while featuring depictions of how Newton would have responded to modern events involving African Americans including the murders of rappers 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G.; the end of the film shows Newton weeping while singing the Notorious B.I.G. lyrics, “Birthdays was the worst days, now we sip champagne when we thirsty.” Throughout the film, Newton can be seen chain-smoking as his soft voice and stuttering become readily apparent to the viewer—a point which surprised Smith when he was first researching Newton since he did not expect the fierce leader to be soft-spoken.  The smoking posed a special challenge to Smith, who revealed that he had to smoke a pack of cigarette’s during all 600 of his plays during his worldwide tour. The play and film both reach a climax when Newton breaks out into an elaborate dance and begins doing push-ups to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”—all while smoking cigarettes one after another. According to Smith, the scene is symbolic of Newton’s self-destructive character in the midst of his attempts to help those in the black community. “[The scene] is about the idea of a person building himself up, doing push-ups, and tearing himself down while smoking cigarettes, and that was Huey’s contradiction,” said Smith.

Smith also attempted to tie in Newton’s life with modern political struggles.  Smith noted that revolutions and their leaders, much like Newton, are needed in every generation. “There are good changes happening every day. The federal court of appeals turned back proposition eight today. You think that would have been done if people hadn’t have gone to the streets to protest?” said Smith.
In the beginning of the question and answer session, Smith took several moments to praise UC Riverside students for their involvement in last month’s on-campus protests. “I congratulate you for your activism and I encourage you to keep it up. I think that education is something that should not be taken for granted…I salute you, the students of UC Riverside [for making] it clear that education is a priority.” Perhaps most reflective of Smith’s message and the ideas presented during the screening were embodied by Smith’s quoting of the civil and human rights advocate Frederick Douglass, who stated, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”