Everyone’s Into Weirdness: PENITENTIARY (1979)

Jamaa Fanaka's prison boxing movie packs a bigger punch than you might think.

The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night*. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Laird Jimenez and Joe A. Ziemba (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.

The first entry in this disreputable canon is Jamaa Fanaka’s Blaxploitation sensation, Penitentiary (1979)…

Year: 1979

Trailers: Welcome Home, Brother Charles; Skatetown USA

According to a 1979 census taken in American prisons by the US Department of Justice, blacks, who made up 12% of the total US population, accounted for 48% of the nation’s incarcerated. Nearly three out of every five inmates had not completed high school, a statistic that led the Department to the draw the conclusion that a lack of education had “undoubtedly contributed to their employment problems and low income”. Over 63% of the total prison population were males ranging 18 – 29 years of age; virile men wasting their prime behind bars. In short, they had no jobs, no education and now a criminal record that would follow them for the rest of their days. They were fucked for life.

These facts weren’t lost on Jamaa Fanaka (real name: Walter Gordon) when he made Penitentiary, the third film he wrote, produced and directed while still a student at UCLA. As legend goes, Walter Gordon was posted up on a sidewalk, waiting for an associate to bring back some guns so that they could go rob a few guys. But something caught Gordon’s eye whilst standing on that sunny street corner – a gaggle of college recruiters hocking a “film program”. Gordon wasn’t sure what a poor ex-Air Force man from Mississippi could offer such an institution, but he entered and excelled and found himself transferring from community college to one of the best programs in the United States, where Gordon studied alongside Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust).

Together, the trio helped form the LA Rebellion. In the restless wake of the ‘65 Watts Riots and ’69 UCLA shoot-out (in which two black power advocates – Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter and John Huggins Jr. – were killed), several students persuaded the powers that presided over UCLA to launch an ethnographic studies program for those interested in local communities of color. The films that arose out of this studious movement, helmed by Dash and Burnett, spoke to anti-Vietnam and black-lib sentiments. During this time, Walter Gordon changed his name to Jamaa Fanaka (which in Swahili means “together we will find success”) and made his first short in 1972, A Day in the Life of Willie Faust, or Death on the Installment Plan.

Described by Jan-Christopher Horak, the current Director of UCLA’s Film & Television Archive, as a “morality tale in two reels”, Death on the Installment Plan was an adaption of Goethe’s “Faust”, presented with a non-synchronous soundtrack and superimposed over a remake of Super Fly. Fanaka’s first two features – Emma Mae and Welcome Home, Brother Charles – found distribution while he was still in school, as they played with popular Blaxploitation tropes of the time. Emma Mae feels somewhat semi-autobiographical even in mere synopsis, following a young Southern girl who moves to Los Angeles and ends up plotting a bank robbery in order to raise bail for two drug dealers. Brother Charles saw Fanaka tipping over into surrealist territory, as a proud black man is experimented on in prison, leading him to take revenge on the evildoers who took away his humanity by strangling them with his gigantic cock. That’s right – Charles’ “manhood” becomes the weapon with which he exacts his soul vengeance.

Penitentiary finds Fanaka channeling his inner Billy Wilder, as he desperately clings to the convictions he and the LA Rebellion committed themselves (namely ensuring that black characters were steered away from being portrayed as “jive” caricatures) while still delivering a picture that is wholly accessible to the mainstream. The story of Martel “Two Sweet” Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy), a fighter wrongfully imprisoned for attacking two white men, Penitentiary runs on raw, unbridled energy, wielded like a blunt instrument via cinema. Fanaka’s film is undoubtedly crude, but also undeniably powerful -- taking a claustrophobic, idiosyncratic sports film and using it as a means to deliver his socially conscious message.

To call a prison boxing movie “combative” feels somewhat redundant, but Fanaka’s style is so in your face that any other descriptor seems like it would be doing the picture a disservice. Our initial guide to the cell block is a dazed inmate, smoking a cigarette out of his ear. As he staggers down an aisle, men howl from their cells on either side. It’s an arresting introduction to this pit of Hell, and as we move deeper into its belly, we find that this is by no means going to be an easy stretch of time. Fanaka doesn’t shy away from the primitive ways these men try to prove themselves to one another; namely via the constant threat of violence, sexual or otherwise. Once we enter the ring, it’s not uncommon for a fighter to get right up in our face, screaming and spitting as the gaps where missing teeth should be transform into a bottomless void. This is the world of prison. You either deal, or die trying.

None of this is meant to imply that Penitentiary is an unpleasant sit. Quite the contrary, actually. Again -- Fanaka is acting as a pure entertainer as much as he is documenting the lives of society’s least desirable members. From his character names on down -- this is a movie where the protagonist is named “Too Sweet”, and whose main foil is a brute called “Half-Dead” (the inimitable Badja Djola) -- it’s clear that Fanaka is just as playful as he is punchy. The central metaphor may be easy to decode -- black men struggling through a purgatory whose only escape comes in the form of organized sports -- but the journey Too Sweet and his comrades behind bars embark upon is often filled with laugh-out-loud moments of endlessly quotable dialogue. Fanaka also fills the perimeters of his frame with extraordinary side players. The entourage of gay fighter Sweet Pea (Wilbur “Hi-Fi” White) adds a deafening peanut gallery to every match (not to mention an air of authenticity, as they were White’s real life LGBT posse). Meanwhile, working Too Sweet’s corner is the physical embodiment of the “institutionalized” man, Seldom Seen (Floyd “Wildcat” Chatman), one of the most tragic yet incredibly funny characters ever committed to the screen. You’ll be screaming “gimme the Goodbar!” for days after seeing this movie for the first time.

The seams on Fanka’s production certainly show, as the prison block the men spend most of their time on seems to only consist of a single row of cells. Outside, the recreation yard looks like a concrete lot behind a warehouse (in reality, it’s the quadrangle of the UCLA cinema department). But just when your eye begins to pick up on too many of these rough edges, Fanaka distracts you with a moment of disarming humanity. What best sells the world of Penitentiary is the writer/director’s commitment to injecting each and every one of these over-the-top cartoons with human essence. Even the white prison lieutenant (Chuck Mitchell) who organizes the illegal boxing tournament, guaranteeing the winner a better shot with the parole board, is never demonized for being in a position of power (like many Blaxploitation pictures tend to do). This was Jamaa Fanaka’s true genius -- his overwhelming affection for each and every one of his characters, flaws and all.

After the massive success of Penitentiary (which went on to become the most lucrative independently financed film of 1979), Fanaka found himself something of a hot property inside of Hollywood. He became one of the few black men to ever gain admission into the Director’s Guild of America, and ended up making two more Penitentiary pictures. The second featured the first speaking role for Mr. T, while the third was released under the notorious Golan & Globus Cannon Films banner. Unfortunately, Fanaka found the DGA (and pretty much the rest of the industry) to be a rather limited playground, stating in numerous interviews that it should go out of of its way more often to hire women and members of minority groups. His airing of these grievances led to the filmmaker’s blacklisting, a final fate even his New York Times obituary somewhat dances around (the paper says the director “claims” to have been exiled). Fanaka died from complications due to diabetes in 2012 at the age of 69, twenty years after his last film (Street Wars) was completed. He had exposed the “Achilles heel of Hollywood” (to quote the director directly) and inadvertently sacrificed his career by doing so. Yet his legacy still remains, as Jamaa Fanaka was one of the great truth tellers who never lost sight of making his tomes fun as hell to sit through.

*For an oral history of the Drafthouse’s beginnings, I’ll refer you to Zack McGhee’s wonderful “My Favorite Movie” Podcast, where he interviews old school DH programmers Lars Nilsen and Zack Carlson, as well as current Wednesday night ringmaster, Laird Jimenez. They’re GREAT listens, full of knowledge, wit and insight.