Penitentiary is a blaxploitation film directed by Jamaa Fanaka, who was part of the “L.A. Rebellion” movement of young African-American filmmakers in the ’70s, mostly from UCLA. The most notable member of the group was Charles Burnett. For the most part they rejected classical Hollywood filmmaking, opting for an experimental neo-realist approach. However, Fanaka was an exception he wanted to make entertainment and serious films just like one of his favourite directors Billy Wilder.
Penitentiary plays into that, as it’s partly a spin on Rocky. It’s about a young African-American man who has been wrongfully imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. He is forced to join a prison boxing team by the white police guards in an attempt to get early parole and dominance over the other inmates.
The main character’s name is Martell “Too Sweet” Gordone, played by Leon Isaac Kennedy. The film is a statement on how prison in the US is basically a new form of Jim Crow or slavery. The prison guards treat these young African-American Men like cattle –this is even referenced in the dialogue numerous times. The film is not subtle by any stretch but that’s why we love these films in the first place.
It was one of the last Blaxploitation features—made in 1979, when the genre was pretty much over. The director has already the feature Black Sister’s Revenge in 1974 while he was still a student at the time, when the film was picked up by a distributor and even became a hit. It was a breakout film for Fanaka but it was really Penitentiary which put him on the map and he ended up doing two more sequels. It’s a gritty and violent movie that has plenty to say about the time it was made, but is still relevant today. As prison movies go, it’s pretty interesting, and the boxing storyline works well with the narrative of him having to fight his way out of the situation.
It marks the small period when the “L.A. Rebellion” movement went overground. Penitentiary was a hit and was the biggest independent film in terms of box-office returns in 1979. Fanaka struggled to get more films made that weren’t sequels to his hit, his sole other feature was Street Wars in 1992. He was one of the few African-American members of the Director’s Guild of America but found the organization too discriminatory like the film business at large.
Fanake is quoted as once saying “I exposed the Achilles’ heel of Hollywood” and claimed the DGA rarely followed on their promises of helping women and other minorities to get work as directors. This sounds very familiar and will be interesting the promises the DGA are making in today’s day and age will be equally false. Fanake actually took the DGA to court in the early 90s which basically blacklisted him from Hollywood for life.
There’s an archival commentary by the director (he died in 2012), and a second commentary track with the second assistant director Sergio Mins, plus interviews with the lead actor, the cinematographer and one of the producers, plus the trailer. Look out for the sequel Penitentiary II coming soon for Vinegar Syndrome as well.