The combination of revolutionary political organisations, a covert FBI operation and fake movies sounds like the stuff of fiction, but forms the foundation of the true story told in The Big Cigar, a new limited series from Apple TV+.


Set in the dazzling colour of 1970s America, The Big Cigar explores how Huey P Newton – the co-founder and first leader of the radical Black Panther Party – fled the US to Cuba with the help of Hollywood.

But how much of what we see in The Big Cigar aligns with the real history of this extraordinary phase of Newton’s life?

Is The Big Cigar a true story?

Yes, The Big Cigar is based on a true story: Huey P Newton really did flee to Cuba in 1974, enabled by the production of a fake film, also named The Big Cigar, organised by Hollywood producer Bert Schneider.

Though he effected his escape in a matter of weeks, the reasons behind it were years in the making – and his absence was keenly felt by the Black Panthers.

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When and why did Huey P Newton create the Black Panthers?

While still college students, Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (later shortened to Black Panther Party) in October 1966 in Oakland, California.

The duo created the political organisation as a response to racial tensions and violence against African Americans by police, with the aim of empowering black communities to protect themselves from police brutality.

The creation of the Black Panther Party was heavily inspired by figures like Malcolm X – the black nationalist leader who emphasised the power of self-defence and advocated for African Americans striving for self-determination.

Huey P Newton speaking at an event
Huey P Newton speaking at an event. (Photo by Getty Images)

Why did Huey P Newton flee to Cuba?

On 28 October 1967, Newton was unexpectedly locked in a tense encounter with Oakland police officers. The confrontation escalated into a shootout and, during this confrontation, Newton shot and killed officer John Frey.

Arguing that he had been shot first, Newton claimed self-defence. However, just under a year later, he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to a minimum of two years in prison, and a maximum of 15.

Within the broader context of the challenging race relations of the time, Newton’s conviction became a rallying cry for the Black Panther Party, who viewed it as a clear case of racial injustice.

In fact, Newton’s case sparked widespread controversy across the nation with mass protests and the organisation of the ‘Free Huey’ campaign. In 1970, after numerous legal challenges, Newton's conviction was overturned on appeal due to legal misconduct on behalf of the trial’s judge.

But this didn’t mark the end of Newton’s entanglements with the law. In 1974, while still on parole for the shooting of John Frey, Newton was accused of murdering 17-year-old Kathleen Smith, and was further linked with the murder of Betty Van Patter and other acts of violence.

With Newton again stating his innocence, Black Panther Party supporters viewed these allegations as the authorities’ attempt to silence Newton and damage the broader Black Panther Party. This belief was bolstered by the FBI's covert COINTELPRO programme; a concerted effort to disrupt and discredit activist groups that were seen to undermine US political stability and the status quo.

Alessandro Nivola as Bert Schneider in The Big Cigar
Alessandro Nivola as Bert Schneider in The Big Cigar. (Photo by Apple TV+)

Who was Bert Schneider and why did he help Newton escape?

Bert Schneider, a Hollywood producer known for films like Easy Rider, was a vocal supporter of the Black Panther Party, and became convinced of Newton's innocence. And so he offered to orchestrate an audacious plan that would see Newton flee to Cuba to avoid the FBI and further criminal charges.

Schneider’s proposition was daring: he would create a fake production company that would shoot a film starring Newton. There was no intention for the movie in question, – The Big Cigar – ever to be made. Instead, it was to act as an alibi to explain Newton’s movements as he prepared to leave the US.

Schneider used his Hollywood experience to assemble a team of filmmakers and actors sympathetic to the Black Panther Party's cause, all willing to act in Newton’s interest.

Huey P Newton arriving at court flanked by supporters.
Huey P Newton arriving at court flanked by supporters. (Photo by Getty images)

What happened to Huey P Newton while he was in Cuba?

Thanks to Schneider’s aid, Newton left the US later in 1974, and arrived in Cuba. Precise details about Newton’s escape remain cloaked in mystery, and when asked in an interview about his journey, he said, “I would rather not talk about my excursion…my getting here.”

During his exile in Cuba, Newton’s political influence significantly diminished and his absence took its toll on the Black Panther Party, fuelling conflicts and power struggles within the group.

Did Huey P Newton ever return from Cuba?

Newton remained in Cuba for three years, until 1977, whereupon he returned to the US to face the charges levelled against him, which were ultimately dropped.

How did Huey P Newton die?

Huey P Newton was shot and murdered by Tyrone Robinson of the Black Guerilla Family, a rival black power organisation.


His final words are reported as being, “You can kill my body, and you can take my life but you can never kill my soul. My soul will live forever.”


James OsborneContent producer

James Osborne is a content producer at HistoryExtra where he writes, researches, and edits articles, while also conducting the occasional interview