Penitentiary (1979)
Director: Jamaa Fanaka
Writers: Jamaa Fanaka
Starring: Leon Isaac Kennedy, Wilbur ‘Hi-Fi’ White and Thommy Pollard

The Plot: Martel ‘Too Sweet’ Gordone (played by Leon Isaac Kennedy) is a tough young man who runs into some trouble with a couple of bikers who try their best to rough up a young prostitute. When ‘Too Sweet’ begins to batter the two goons, he is struck over the head with a bottle and knocked unconscious. When he awakens, he is in prison. A victim of the racist system, Too Sweet must now contend with life on the inside. The prison is ran by a group of individuals who are obsessed with breaking in the fresh meat, so that they can make them their sexual slaves. ‘Too Sweet’ however refuses to give in and displays his tremendous natural fighting ability. This gets him a shot in a boxing competition that offers many rewards, such as free time with a woman and even time taken off of a sentence! Will ‘Too Sweet’ make it through the tournament and what will happen with his new enemies within the penitentiary?

The Review
By the time the seventies were coming to a close the blaxploitation genre was beginning to fade into obscurity, certainly when looked at in comparison to its popularity during the years previous. There were still films being made, such as Rudy Ray Moore’s Disco Godfather (1979) and South African Death of a Snow Man (1978) amongst many others, but the lines had been blurred so much at this point that this genre, that never really was a “genre”, was beginning to peter out. Director Jamaa Fanaka was a filmmaker from a specific time, who could only have worked within that very specific generation, and his time and place was within African American independent cinema during the 1970’s. Best known for the Penitentiary trilogy, Fanaka is a very different and interesting character from blaxploitation film history. Since the majority of all casts in blaxploitation films were obviously African American, many might have been left with the impression that these films were also directed and written by African Americans themselves. This was unfortunately not the case on most occasions. There were only a hand full of African Americans standing behind the camera within this movement. Fanaka is interesting because, unlike someone like Melvin Van Peoples, Fanaka had a definite love for genre filmmaking. Each one of his five films, made between the years of 1975 to 1992, all fall within the lines of genre-cinema in some form or another. Often times they were bent into weird and unrecognizable shapes along the way, but by and large his films had a certain commercial aesthetic to them that lead many to embrace his particular form of entertainment. Penitentiary itself stands out as easily one of the better, and certainly most interesting, prison films made within this time and era.
The film opens up as a regular run of the mill exploitation film, starting off in a dusty desert surrounding with a group of bikers harassing ‘Too Sweet’. Your first impression is that this film will take us the route of a generic biker film similar to Born Losers (the first Billy Jack film which featured similar scenery and a biker’s run-amuck plot device), but in the very first moment where we actually enter into the prison system: we are transported to a different world. This is where the film delivers something completely unlike anything you have ever seen before. Characters break through the fourth wall on regular occurrence, walking directly into the camera and staring into it while mouthing inaudible words and threats while their happiness and anger scream intimidation. Their wild stares and incessant dancing gives the appearance of something foreign, or completely wild, hidden away within our “justice” system. The criminal system, within the first few shots, is shown to be a complete and total madhouse. Insanity at it’s most tantamount. This isn’t a place to be reformed, it’s a place where sanity is apparently deprived of all its citizenry. Within this secular society, all of societal norms have been flipped upside down and a war of sexual orientation is being battled about.

Although, at its very heart, this is a very simple boxing story set within a prison and has a fair amount of comedy thrown in to entertain, but one gets the idea that Fanaka definitely went for some of the social commentary that his film makes. The state of the criminal system is of course shown to be predominately black, with several allusions to slavery being made in the form of homosexual aggression lead by a select number of authoritative leaders within the prison. Fresh prisoners who aren’t acclimated to the rough and tumble way of life that is now in front of them are made into sexual slaves for the high ranking gang leaders. Human beings are treated as objects, expressed perfectly in one pivotal sequence where the young Laverne is chastised by another inmate and is told “You my stuff now! You my stuff!”. The heartlessness of slavery is captured within scenes such as this better than any civil war feature I believe that I have ever seen. Although the white warden isn’t shown to be as insufferable as many of the black inmates, he is still very much a plantation-owner of sorts. The character generally even looks the part. So, within this strange world of slavery upon slavery, the character of Too Sweet stands up as a strong black male who may be held within the confines of this system, the prison/America, but he will not play ball and he will fight to have what he desperately wants: freedom/equality. This is all very surface level observations, but what I like about Penitentiary is that we as the audience can pick up on these small bits of subtext but at the same time we can also enjoy the plentiful action sequences throughout.
Never willing to abandon the fun nature of cinema, Fanaka crafts an action film in the midst of his counter-cultural observation on American “justice”. The action is generally divided into two parts: the realistic boxing sequences, and then the rehearsed and choreographed street fights. As a fight fan myself (boxing and mixed martial arts), I always keep an eye on fight choreography. What is interesting about Penitentiary is the way many of the in-ring boxing sequences are handled. Rather than a Rocky style of back and forth action, which is often well choreographed but entirely fake looking, the actors in Penitentiary look to really throw their punches and are legitimately trying to make contact with one another. If you have ever seen a legitimate street fight between two untrained guys who simply want to slug it out and throw the most ridiculous haymakers that they possibly can, then you have seen what some of the boxing in Penitentiary looks like. Overhand lefts and overhand rights, thrown in succession without halting, by both combatants… that is really all there is to these boxing sequences, but in the context of the movie it works tremendously well. After all, these are just men throwing punches at each other without any kind of legitimate training. When a fighter who has no self control steps into the ring within any full contact sport, they will act in basically the same fashion. When offense seems to work, who cares about defense?

The Conclusion
Does Penitentiary have issues? Sure! You can pick it apart, with the budget obviously being a factor in many of the goals Fanaka likely had for his film. However, I must say, Penitentiary succeeds as a piece of entertainment and as a time capsule for independent African American filmmaking. I have become such a fan of this movie, I can’t help but recommend it. I give it a four out of five stars and hope others take the time to track it down if they have not already!

You might also be interested in: