Too Sweet, Too Bitter… Farewell, Jamaa Fanaka

Pioneer. American original. Friend for life. Lars says goodbye to filmmaker Jamaa Fanaka.

Jamaa Fanaka called himself a guerrilla/gorilla filmmaker. By a colossal exertion of will he made some of the most interesting and important films of the ‘70s with little or no money. His movies are cheap certainly, but they are full of skillfully rendered life. Today we may think of such films as Welcome Home Brother Charles, Emma Mae and the Penitentiary series as drive-in exploitation pictures but I have always contended that if these movies had been made in a third world country they would be acclaimed in the New York Times and elsewhere as bold visions of resistance to oppression, brave dispatches from the underclass etc. etc. etc. It didn’t matter much to Jamaa I suspect, though I’m sure he could have used the hype to leverage some financing.

Fanaka movies played big in black neighborhoods. Snoop Dogg, who is practically a Professor of Fanaka Studies, remembered his mother taking him to see Fanaka’s films at the drive-in and I remember seeing a marquee advertising Penitentiary and Penitentiary II for practically a whole summer when I was too young to go. The first two (privately financed) Penitentiary movies made a lot of money for Fanaka and their box office success allowed him to make the demented, Cannon financed Penitentiary III, which probably exceeds his first movie Welcome Home Brother Charles (about a man with an 8-foot long avenging penis) in strangeness. Snoop Dogg remembers that he and a lot of other people modified their behavior after seeing Penitentiary because they didn't want to go there.

I was fortunate to know Jamaa. We showed Emma Mae back at the original Alamo Drafthouse and he caught wind of it. I invited him to visit for a screening and his visit was an absolute blast. We showed Brother Charles and Penitentiary for an audience that had no idea what they were getting into. Jamaa was as on as I’ve ever seen a guest. Seeing his absolute charm and magnetism I understood how he had managed to hustle together his movies. He came out for another visit soon after we opened the Ritz and I spoke to him on the phone occasionally. He always signed off with the words “friends for life."

During our visits I pieced together a bit of his story. As I recall he moved with his parents from Alabama to Compton when he was a child. His folks were always very supportive but it was hard to come by a job in those days and Jamaa began drifting into a criminal life. One day, on the way to commit a robbery, Jamaa saw a billboard in South Central that said “UCLA Wants You." He dropped the burglary and called the number. He signed up and studied film under Professor Elyseo Taylor. Along with his fellow students Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima and others, he formed part of the core of a movement called the L.A. Rebellion, which provided the seed (and many of the fruits) of what we think of as black cinema today.

Fanaka was a star pupil at UCLA. During his time there he made three feature films that received theatrical distribution. Most film students are happy to make a thesis film but he actually had movies playing in theaters all over the country while his classmates were polishing their storyboards for their 8 minute shorts.

I remember some excellent advice he shared for young filmmakers. He said that even though filmmaking is expensive, rehearsal is cheap. When he was making Emma Mae, it took him a long time to raise the money for film and equipment rental but he had all his actors and he drilled them all through their parts again and again, refining the characters as he went. As a result, Emma Mae feels like a true slice of life, with very few discordant notes, though it was made on a microscopic budget.

He had so many great stories, many of which I probably shouldn’t repeat until the subjects are gone too, but I’ll share the one about Robert De Niro. When Fanaka told a story, he’d try to draw you into it, so the way he began the De Niro story was “Do you know who I think is the best actor in the world?” “No, who?” Robert De Niro.” And here’s why. The two were friends and one time they were at a film festival. De Niro is not much of a drinker but on a dare, as the story went, he drank a tall glass of straight vodka. He was such a skilled actor that he was able to convincingly impersonate a sober man. That’s a signature Fanaka story. When he told it he made an exaggerated, incredulous face, as if De Niro had levitated above the table.

Jamaa’s favorite movie was William Wyler’s Ben Hur and Wyler was his filmmaking idol. I recall bringing up a scene I particularly love in Jezebel and Fanaka went wild with enthusiasm over the memory. He had a strong foundation in the classic Hollywood film and he greatly admired the old masters. If he had ever gotten a chance he could have handled a big crew and a big budget with ease. He knew what he wanted in the frame and he had the determination to go out and get it.

As Jamaa got older his diabetes slowed him down a lot. Though I realized he might not have the sustained energy to direct features anymore, I hoped he would become a full time teacher of film. I saw him conduct a workshop here in Austin during one of his visits and he was full of practical advice and tricks. It was knowledge he had gotten the old-fashioned way and he was a patient instructor full of helpful anecdotes. I remember him talking about the importance of having all the coverage you needed before leaving a location, particularly when stealing shots, which he advocated.

I’ll wrap this piece up with the last story he told the audience during his first visit to Austin. Penitentiary was filmed in a real decommissioned jail. Since they were working around the clock with a very low budget, many members of the cast and crew lived in the cells. They took up a collection every day to buy groceries and cooked big communal meals at the end of each long day. There was the expected togetherness and fraternization as the exhausted cast members partied into the night. I’ll never forget the smile on Jamaa’s face when told the crowd about how, after everyone had crashed out for the night, he walked through the cell block and breathed the “sweet, sweet ambrosial smell of pussy." He said it with a big smile and everybody loved him.