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L.A. Rebellion 2011 Retrospective Review - Jamaa Fanaka's "Emma Mae" + Interview w/ Star Jerri Hayes

by Brandon Wilson
December 20, 2011 12:25 PM
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Emma Mae

When I asked Jerri Hayes how it felt to revisit her star turn in Jamaa Fanaka’s second feature Emma Mae (1976) after a recent screening, she answered without hesitation. “You know, it’s so different; I was sitting there relating to Emma Mae like it wasn’t me” she replied.

Hayes flew from New York City to attend the screening. She joined Fanaka, and many cast and crewmembers on the stage after the film. The screening was one of the last of UCLA Film & Television Archives’ monumental retrospective of the L.A. Rebellion films.

Hayes played the eponymous heroine of Fanaka’s second feature (renamed Black Sister’s Revenge by a distributor looking to cash in on blaxploitation). She was attending UCLA as a drama student when Fanaka approached her about starring in his second feature (the second of three he made while at UCLA Film School).

In the end, Fanaka may be the greatest revelation in this series. I already knew a good deal about the movement and many of its members, but Fanaka’s work has proved to be the most surprising for the way he deftly employs convention while subverting it at the same time in his films.

Emma Mae tells the story of a country girl from Mississippi (where Fanaka hails from), who has come to Los Angeles to live with family members. Emma is so country she reacts with bewilderment at the sight of her first taco. But if you think she’s a mere rube that is exactly what Fanaka wants you to think. It makes Emma’s subsequent journey and transformation all the more surprising and riveting. That the catalyst for this change is a man is both conventional and (by the time Fanaka is done with the story) radical.

Like Penitentiary, Emma Mae glides along with an infectious glee, even when the story drifts into dark areas. Fanaka’s two features hum with a joy in filmmaking with every second that passes. His keen ear for clever and revealing dialogue is also on display here.

Emma Mae covers two of the key themes in the L.A. Rebellion: migration and personal transformation. And one of the truly great joys of this series has been watching each week as each filmmaker presents his or her own take on these topics.

While there is a revenge element to the film, there is so much more if you choose to treat the film as more than a diversion. The film makes that clear in its opening scene, which captures an idyllic afternoon at a Compton park. It recalls the opening credits of Spike Lee’s Crooklyn except that where Spike had to recreate, Fanaka simply documents the actual moment. But bigger than this is the fact that Fanaka’s film is really about the sad transition that occurred in mid-1970’s Black L.A.: when the dreams of the Civil Rights & Black Liberation Movements ebbed only to be replaced by street nihilism.

It has been my oft-expressed desire in writing about this series that these films travel to other cities and get the kind of DVD release they deserve. I have also repeatedly talked about the performers. The directors have struggled to get their due, but auteurism ensures that they will always receive the praise first when it is aimed at the films. But (along with the critics who champion the films) the actors are often the unsung heroes of this movement.

Jerri Hayes is emblematic in this respect. The Alabama native never acted in another film after her debut role in Emma Mae. She moved to New York and focused on her family. “At first, I couldn’t watch a play without crying because I missed it so much” she said of her decision to stop acting. “But then I looked at my little one and I looked at New York and thought if the streets took my daughter I’d never be able to deal with it.” And so she quit. Now that her daughter is in graduate school, Hayes hopes to return to her first love. She is currently preparing a one-woman show, and hopes to one day work again with Fanaka. Their enduring mutual admiration was a pleasure to witness.

Hayes’ choice was hers to make. One cannot witness her transform herself from an innocent to a warrior in Emma Mae without wondering what performances we’ve missed out on from her. The final irony is that her decision to walk away stems from her desire to make sure her own daughter didn’t suffer a fate similar to Emma Mae’s sad path.

One can only speculate what long term impact this screening and this retrospective has had on Hayes, Fanaka, and all the other actors and directors who revisited their work in the last ten weeks. But with a little luck, perhaps this series will live up to its subtitle (“Creating A New Black Cinema”) by reinvigorating the actors and directors as they finally begin to receive the recognition so long overdue. I’m sure they all, like Hayes, have a lot left to offer.

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  • Paul Brown | August 8, 2013 5:30 PMReply

    A friend gave me a copy on video in the early 80's in the uk, i played it so many times to how i love the film, great story, great acting, great music, it just became a classic to me, then i got burgled and they took all my videos, then i think it was about 1994/5 another friend was telling me about this movie and how great it was and lent it to me to watch, to my amazement as i couldn't remember the name of the film got my video back which also had the last dragon on the tape, how that happened i don't know but i was so happy to get Emma Mae/Black Sisters Revenge back, i still have it on video but was trying to tell someone in the U.S. A. about the movie as they were telling me about "Cornbread Earl And Me" they didn't seem to know about this movie, so again not remembering the title found it on Youtube after a search but now i need to get a clean copy on DVD. I sorry to hear that Jamaa Fanaka passed away, such a great director and a pioneer RIP sir. Jerri Hayes your a legend and an icon. now we have search engines and eveeryone wants to know what ever happened to you, well i guess we know now. All the other Actors & Actresses done a great job too to make this movie a classic.

  • Mizit4 | July 14, 2013 6:31 AMReply

    I have loved this film. Saw it in 74 but could only remember the shoes. When I saw the new name in the store, I almost passed it up because I do not like that type film, but support low budget films even if I give it away. It was like a birthday present to see this movie, and I have to replace it because I watched it so much. The grandchildren..(teens) are going to get their own when I see it again. I have always asked about Jerri. Such a beautiful, black myself. Sorry to hear of the passing of Jamaa Fanaka. I hope he got to read the good things I had to say about him. I have been trying to find this info so long, I have new screen names. Most of the actors seemed to be one timers, but did a fantastic job as did Mr. Fanaka. What a light for my day!

  • jamaa fanaka | December 26, 2011 9:55 PMReply

    Working with you was such a joy, Jerri. And that goes for your co-star, Ernest Williams II, too. He asked me to have you contact him at the following email address:
    Of course, I look forward anxiously to working with you again. Friend-for-life, Jamaa

  • Jerri Hayes | December 26, 2011 1:22 AMReply

    Jamaa, I have always loved you, starting with our days as students at UCLA. My admiration for your creativity and sensibility only grows with time. I so look forward to working with you again.

  • jamaa fanaka | December 22, 2011 2:04 PMReply

    NEZIAH:In response to your inquiry in your last 'comment', I have plans to make another film starring the much-in=demand JERRI HAYES and co-starring the now PROFESSOR CHARLES DAVID BROOKS III, the now Professor AL COWART and, hopefully, the now world famous painter, SYNTHIA ST. JAMES (who plays ULIKA in the film.) and other performer in "EMMA MAE" if they are not too busy to participate. They all have gone on to forge successful careers.
    NEZIAH, as our exchange of messages develop, you don't seem like a bad and unethical guy. That's why I am 'dying to know' why you chose to go out of your way to pan 'EMMA MAE' when you now admit that not only had you not attended the UCLA ARCHIVES/GETTY MUSEUM screening of a pristine print of my 1976 moving picture, but, in your own words, you at best had not seen the film in decades? Whassup wit dat?

  • Neziah | December 22, 2011 4:30 PM

    That was a misguided attempt by me to try to judge a film after only one viewing, which was several years ago. I should've watched it again recently before leaving such a comment, so I apologize once again. I guess I just wanted to offer my input since I have seen it at one point in time. I just now ordered the DVD off of, so now I can watch it the way it was meant to be seen. If there's another screening, I'll be happy to go to it and support the film. Thanks for taking some time out to reply to me, I really appreciate it.

  • JAMAA FANAKA | December 21, 2011 9:31 PMReply

    "EMMA MAE" has "secular immortality." I coined the term "secular immortality" to express one of the grand reasons that people are so intrigued by motion pictures. Today we can see a film starring, say, Humphrey Bogart, and he is just as vital and alive to us as he was fifty years ago when he was making the film. That's one of the reasons I feel so strongly about my film, 'EMMA MAE'. It has gained "secular immortality" for its performers because critics, film historians and especially everyday people have so willed it. My mother's late mother and my nephew and my late sister are in "EMMA MAE," and every time I see it my eyes flood with tears and I again appreciate the glorious value of "secular immortality, "

  • Neziah | December 22, 2011 1:08 PM

    Will you be making another similar film someday?

  • Celestus Blair Jr. | December 21, 2011 4:18 PMReply

    Good storytelling has not changed much over the years- whatever your cultural preference. Identify characters, get them in trouble then watch what happens too and fro until your ready to end it.

    EMMA MAE tells a gritty story about grimey ghetto truths. You cannot identify with the reality of the players and mismatch props interferes with your enjoyment,your probably wasting you time watching .

  • Radha | December 21, 2011 1:35 PMReply

    'Emma Mae' aka 'Black Sisters Revenge' as I know a family favorite...when i say my brother and i can quote that final scene from beginning to end by heart...!? We often act it out for guests at family functions. No. It wasn't the best piece of filmmaking but it was so unapologetically raw and Black, of that time, style and language. I see it as an archive as well as a narrative. But it's got some gems.....from lines like 'You look like an armadillah in da face!' to 'You got a face only a mother could love so she died so she wouldn't have to see it again!' CLAAAAAAAASSSSIC!!! Thank you Mr. Fanaka!

  • K. Walker | December 21, 2011 5:42 AMReply

    When I saw Emma Mae the thing that I was most startled by with it, was the social depiction and commentary that was captured by the film in its characters and script. Hayes portrayal of a woman who must put all of her vulnerable and naivete on display, to only jump into the strong heroine when called for shows her versatility as an actor. Fanaka's depiction and commentary of black Los Angeles nearly two decades prior to Singleton's Boyz in the Hood was just as poignant if not more. We must also be careful in making critical comparisons of works produced in another period and holding them to the current critical standard, of what conventions and techniques are being utilized by todays filmmakers. I personally enjoyed it and will watch it a few more times to learn a few things about the period, views and also from the production elements (i.e. set design, blocking of shots etc.)

  • Charles David Brooks, III | December 20, 2011 10:11 PMReply

    Brandon, couple with fact that "Emma Mae" endured the late rocky 70s, the pay-back 80s, the degradation of Black Woman by the Videopliotation of the 90s 0n into the 21st century, then it is time to hear from the performers, the scholars, and ethno-reseachers whose creatively caused this film production of Emma Mae to survive...Charles David Brooks, III ("Zeke" in Emma Mae).

  • bondgirl | December 20, 2011 5:59 PMReply

    This sounds really intriguing; will see if available online. There was a funeral held today in NYC for a white cop shot dead by a black assailant...yup, it does happen every so often.

  • jamaa fanaka | December 20, 2011 4:44 PMReply

    Though I strongly disagree with your assessment of my moving picture, 'EMMA MAE', as an artist I am not surprised and do realize that some people may look at my film superficially as simply a "revenge" film. It was not intended to be a revenge film but a cautionary tale. When Emma Mae retaliates on her erstwhile boyfriend Jesse, it is clear to most reviews that I have read that the reviewers realize that among the filmmaker's intents was to switch places between the sexes and let us males know how we would feel if the woman was physically superior and assaulted us every time we said something to with they took exception. Indeed, one of the most obvious themes of "EMMA MAE" is the fact that Blacks must walk that walk rather than constantly talking that talk. And your statement about "black boys beating up white cops and surviving" indicates to me that you have written a comment without even viewing the film; for the fight was between "black young men(boys are twelve and under) and black cops." The opinion of anyone who can't tell a black cop from a white one is QUESTIONABLE at best. Plus, as proved in the Watts Revolt, the white man does not win every fight. I am proud and happy to say that everyone with whom I spoke after the screening (who had actually seen the film) told me that they looooved it. The above review's mention of the fake "Godfather" punches is right on the button. And that goes for STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES and other iconic white films. Small-minded folks nitpick black films to death, while they give white films free rides. The SHADOW and ACT review is right on the button in my informed (I KNOW the colors of the young men and he cops) humble opinion.

  • Neziah | December 20, 2011 8:57 PM

    My apologies to Mr. Fanaka, it's been so long since I've seen the film that I forgot the color of the cops. lol

    I also didn't realize that was the intent you were conveying during the revenge scene, and you're right, black films get nitpicked for a lot of the same flaws that white films usually get away with. I'll watch "Emma Mae" again (didn't get a chance to go to the screening, although I wanted to) with a different perspective and more of an open mind, because my appreciation for low-budget (specifically black) filmmaking has grown since I first watched this film.

    By the way, I'm a fan of your work, and wanted to know whether or not "Penitentiary III" and "Street Wars" will be released on DVD anytime soon, if you have the answer to that question.

  • Ace in a Hole | December 20, 2011 8:01 PM

    I have some real issues with Emma Mae. I don’t want to say the plot is directionless, because it is telling a cohesive story. It just takes way too long to get there, which makes for a very slow movie. I’m also not sure what kind of movie Emma Mae wanted to be. It starts off telling the story of a naive girl, and then abruptly becomes some kind of crime movie, only to then show Emma Mae teaching the city folk a lesson. These transitions happen without warning and are very confusing when they happen. This is just bad storytelling and derails any chance the movie had of being good. The performances aren’t very good either. This is the only credit for leading lady Jerri Hayes, and for good reason. Her performance is wooden with a delivery that borders on screeching the dialogue at times. When the actress that you are counting on to carry the movie is this bad you know you are in for some trouble and this movie proves that point. Maybe if she was surrounded by a better cast it would have worked, but none of the cast seems to have a clue as to what they are doing.

    The one thing that really impressed me about this movie is how well it was made on what appears to be a shoestring budget. The director, Jamaa Fanaka, manages to pull off not only great interiors but also nighttime exterior shots with equal skill. If you haven’t watched a lot of lower budget movies this is one of the places where they always fail. Lighting is always an issue on cash strapped productions, so when I see one done well I have to point it out. That said I think some of the shots the filmmaker went for were just out of his reach. None of the police wear matching uniforms, all the cars are “unmarked” and the shootouts are poorly done. I don’t know how they could of told this story without trying to film these scenes, but it would have worked much better.

    This movie does have a following and I suppose I can understand why. It is different from most of the other blaxsploitation movies I’ve seen. And trust me it is a blaxsploitation movie with the “man” always keeping them down and the police being crazy. But for me it just doesn’t deliver the cool factor that I’m used to when I sit down to watch one of these. Maybe I’m missing the point, but I just didn’t like it and can’t recommend it.

    1 out of 4

  • Neziah | December 20, 2011 2:34 PMReply

    Didn't like this film much at all; a lot of scenes were poorly done (the punches in the fight scenes were blatantly fake), and I couldn't buy the story aspects at all (black boys beating up white cops and surviving?) In reality, those boys would've been killed in an instant by back-up. Also, the revenge scene was so over the top that it was ridiculous. "Welcome Home, Brother Charles" was a much better revenge film by Fanaka, because at least then he found the right balance between the surreal and the conventional, and without sacrificing substance, which "Emma Mae" had very little of. By the way, this is already on DVD, but I'm guessing you meant a meaty release.

  • Brandon | December 20, 2011 3:32 PM

    If you're judging films by the quality of fake punches thrown then you must hate "The Godfather". When Sonny throttles his brother-in-law Coppola shoots one of the very worst fake punches ever filmed, far worse than anything in Emma Mae. As for the point about the cops, I respectfully say "who cares?". The strong points in Emma Mae far outweigh these flaws by my lights.

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