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L.A. Rebellion 2011 Retrospective Review - Jamaa Fanaka's "Penitentiary"

by Brandon Wilson
October 18, 2011 2:12 AM
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In two weekends time, the L.A. Rebellion retrospective at the at the Hammer Museum, hosted by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, is shaping up to be the year’s most important series. Sadly, the competition is weak these days (what with the New Beverly devoted to grindhouse spanophilia, American Cinematheque having lost all of its programming chi and the LACMA film program having been decapitated – sorry times for L.A. cinephiles).

This long overdue series shines a light on the movement that organically sprang from both the ashes of the 60’s and the excitement a group of African and African-American filmmakers had in seizing the means of production for the first time.

Jamaa Fanaka is squarely a member of this cadre of filmmakers (which includes esteemed figures like Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, and Zeinabu Irene Davis among others), and yet he’s always seemed the most unusual member of the bunch. Unlike the others whose cinematic visions were clearly informed by Italian Neo-Realism or Third World Cinema, Fanaka’s work turns on his appropriation of and influence by Hollywood.

It is tempting to think of Jamaa Fanaka as the Claude Chabrol of the L.A. Rebellion. Like Chabrol, Fanaka has produced his movement’s most commercially viable work, embraced genre storytelling and suffered for his box office success at the hands of middlebrows shunning his work while championing his compatriots.

I don’t want to diminish Fanaka’s uniqueness by likening him any further to Chabrol, but in both of their cases the tendency to rank these two filmmakers lower than their respective comrades is myopic and just plain dumb.

Fanaka’s Penitentiary (1979) screened last Friday, his first entry in the current retrospective. It was his third 35mm feature produced while a UCLA film student. Let that fact sink in. You’ll be hard pressed to name another filmmaker who has done anything like it. Penitentiary was also a big box office hit, one of the top indie earners of its day. It spawned two sequels. I can still remember the lurid commercials airing on Saturdays during Soul Train; especially the fearsome countenance of the late Badja Djola’s character Half Dead (the rapper surely took his name from the film) glaring straight into the camera with eyes ablaze.

At once gritty and wholly mythical, the film centers on Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone (played by Leon Isaac Kennedy), who we meet in the desert, apparently drifting as the story begins. Too Sweet is an enigmatic hero in the Clint Eastwood mold. We never really learn anything about him, but we learn his code. Too Sweet is sent to the big house on charges of killing a racist biker, though he does not remember committing the crime.

Too Sweet and the other new inmates find themselves in the unenviable position of being “fresh meat”, new prisoners that will be sized up and fought over by veteran convicts. They are intimidated and sexually menaced by Half Dead and other predators. As Too Sweet watches Eugene (another newbie convict) quickly submit to sexual subordination, we know he will do no such thing himself.

The spectacle of Too Sweet and Half Dead, both oiled and nearly naked, locked in physical combat in their cell (once the latter’s carnal intentions to the former are made clear) takes on an epic grandeur. Their battle is like something out of an ancient and forgotten mythology. Fanaka’s direction shows he understands this. You’d have to look to John Carpenter’s They Live to find a more lavishly staged fight that isn’t the climax of a film.

What makes Penitentiary more than just a campy curio or genre diversion is the powerful subtext Fanaka has placed underneath the fight. Seeing black men attempt to claim ownership of one another’s bodies in a system that controls those bodies with brutality is pretty heady stuff. Fanaka doesn’t beat us over the head with slavery metaphors the way some of his L.A. Rebellion brethren and sistren would, but the echoes of that inhumane institution are inescapable in the film.

I’d be remiss or a coward if I didn’t address the colorism implicit in this clash. Too Sweet and Eugene (played by Thommy Pollard) are both light skinned while Half Dead and the predators are darker skinned. I’m sure at the time, it looked as if Fanaka was revealing color bias in this. Roger Ebert famously noted decades ago this tendency in so-called “Blaxploitation”. Maybe Fanaka has color issues (hard to judge from one film) but maybe he’s after something else. With recent discussions on black authenticity all the rage, I wonder if we can’t also read this as a part of that debate. Perhaps rather than color privilege, the narrative is insisting Too Sweet and Tommy have to prove their (black) manhood in a world where there looks mark them as easy prey and less than a man.

It is one thing to make an art film that raises questions of slavery’s legacy directly and in no uncertain terms, but Penitentiary follows a different path. Like Nicholas Ray or Vincente Minelli, Fanaka has put this social critique inside his entertaining film like gasoline in a car. It powers the film, but if you wish to simply enjoy the ride rather than consider its internal combustion, that is your choice. Sadly, the smoothness of the ride may lead many to undervalue the driver.

Fanaka has a healthy sense of the absurd, writes a crisp and witty screenplay with no shortage of quotable lines. His camerawork is surprisingly elegant, eschewing handheld cliché. Fanaka also displays a generosity towards his characters that is striking. The white lieutenant who runs the prison, though he looks like a caricaturish villain from the Civil Rights Movement, turns out to be just a man, not an angel nor a demon. When male and female prisoners engage in lavatory trysts during boxing matches, Fanaka doesn’t it play it simply for titillation (though that is part of his motive). He forces us to view them as human beings simply looking for the kind of pleasure and release their captivity has made verboten.

The film is almost stolen by Floyd Chatman who plays Too Sweet’s aged boxing trainer Hezekiah “Seldom Seen” Jackson. His cell is neatly decorated like a cozy home. Images of black leaders adorn his walls, Tolstoy is seen on his shelves. Seldom Seen is a lifer who now commands respect on the inside, and as Fanaka tells his tale, he imbues Seldom Seen with a gravitas and depth that is truly Shakespearean. Chatman is a marvel. In the center of this heightened melodramatic fantasia, his naturalistic performance gives the film a power that elevates it immeasurably.

The film loses some of its steam around the two-thirds point (one boxing match too many?) but it ends well with Too Sweet striding back into the California desert triumphantly. Where is he going? Penitentiary 2 (1982) and Penitentiary 3 (1987). I cannot speak for these films as I have never seen them. Fanaka only has one more credit after the trilogy and it is almost 20 years old. I met him at a film festival in 2000 where he was screening his second feature Emma Mae with an updated soundtrack. His energy was infectious. This was a man who loved making films.

As with Dash’s Q&A after Daughters of the Dust, the elephant in the room when hearing these directors speak is the neglect they have received from the American film establishment, and all the films we’re poorer for that they never got to make. If this weighs on Fanaka, he gave no evidence of it after his film screened last week. He hardly needed any questions posed to him. And if he got them he more or less ignored them to hold court on his work, the state of the world, and in a moment that can only be classified as rambling, the debt in China. The lack of bitterness in Fanaka, Dash, Burnett and most of the Rebellion filmmakers is remarkable. The mission they embarked on clearly means more to them than personal glory. Their pride in what they’ve done seems to outstrip any rancor over what they were unable to do.

One question Fanaka did respond to had to do with films that left a mark on him. He mentioned Kubrick’s Spartacus. Fanaka said he loved the moment when Spartacus, his army trapped on the coastline, Roman legions approaching from all sides, says he regrets no decision that brought him to this moment.

Rebellion is its own reward.

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  • David Szulkin | November 18, 2011 4:27 PMReply

    I stand humbled and corrected regarding the original reviews on Jamaa Fanaka's PENITENTIARY. Jamaa, of course, is right that the first movie got RAVE reviews from the critics. My comment was misguided; I was thinking of some foolish critic's remarks about PENITENTIARY II, and I got that mixed up with my memory of the reaction to the first film. I just want to put that on the record here, because I am a big fan of all three PENITENTIARY movies (and of Mr. Fanaka, the man and the filmmaker).

  • milli richa'rd | October 29, 2011 8:36 AMReply

    hey hey, let's make a movie... while today is still today...there never is a later...i'm on it

  • David Szulkin | October 21, 2011 11:31 AMReply

    I remember the reviews when when Penitentiary came out, too...some were good, some were bad, but the people still came to see it and made it a huge success. I still remember the HUGE ads for it in the paper, too; it was a big event that made a major impact. Goes to show you what real talent can accomplish with the will and determination to get something done, no matter what! Penitentiary deserves all the recognition it's getting, and then some. This review is a good one, thoughtful and serious, but it's not necessary to put down a theater that has shown nothing but love for the films of Mr. Jamaa Fanaka!

  • jamaa fanaka | October 21, 2011 9:45 AMReply

    MR. SZULKIN: At my age (69), I make only three demands to theaters that ask to screen my moving pictures: 1) the fee MUST be FAT, 2) the projectionist MUST keep the print in focus and 3) my name MUST be spelled correctly in the promos. By the way, Brandon Wilson's wonderfully insightful review reminds me of the raves PENITENTIARY got when it opened at the PALMS THEATER in DETROIT on Thanksgiving Weekend, 1979, and went on to become the most successful independent film of the year at both the boxoffices and in critical opinions. I only wish that Diogenes was alive today to shine his famous lamp on Brandon Wilson's honest face. 'NUF SED!'

  • David Szulkin | October 20, 2011 11:55 AMReply

    It's odd that you take a swipe at the New Beverly Cinema's exhibition of "grindhouse spanophilia" considering the fact that the New Beverly not only screened "Penitentiary" but also brought Jamaa down to introduce this film as part of its ongoing Grindhouse FIlm Festival. The New Beverly has also screened "Welcome Home, Brother Charles" and the "Penitentiary" sequels with Jamaa in attendance.

  • Brandon Wilson | December 11, 2011 11:43 PM

    My point still stands. I wasn't accusing the New Beverly of ignoring Jamaa Fanaka. I was saying that the attention to grindhouse rarities has taken their attention from doing a series like this one (in its totality). I love the New Bev, but talk to me when they do a double feature of "Sankofa" and "Bush Mama".

  • Sergio | October 18, 2011 9:58 AMReply

    My last name is misspelled though with a extra "m" But that's show biz

  • Brandon Wilson | October 18, 2011 8:48 AMReply

    Sorry I missed your credit Sergio. When I watch the DVD I'll look for it.

  • Sergio | October 18, 2011 2:25 AMReply

    Hey you weren't paying attention!!! Didn't you see my name during the end credits as one of the assistant directors on the film?????????????????

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