Not long ago I wrote about director Jamaa Fanaka’s last film, STREET WARS (1992), and before that his first one, WELCOME HOME BROTHER CHARLES, aka SOUL VENGEANCE (1975). You could sum him up as a director of idiosyncratic blaxploitation, but he wasn’t some cynical Hollywood guy going where the money was. He really was a young filmmaker with a voice. He managed to do three feature films while he was still in film school: BROTHER CHARLES, EMMA MAE (1976) and the one he’s best known for, PENITENTIARY (1979).
This is a movie about a guy who gets screwed over by the racist system, goes to prison and makes his way by boxing. We’re talking eight years after SHAFT, seven years after SUPER FLY, three years after ROCKY.
Our hero is Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy, HAMMER, LONE WOLF MCQUADE), who we first see as a homeless man sleeping in a little tent near a highway. He’s woken up by white dudes off-roading on motorcycles. Hitchhiking, he gets picked up by Linda (Hazel Spear, DISCO GODFATHER), a dream girl with a flower in her hair, driving a cool van. She explains that most people wouldn’t pick up hitchhikers on this highway because there are both men’s and women’s prisons nearby.
This already seems incredibly lucky for Too Sweet to get a ride from a beautiful woman who seems to be vibing with him, and then all the sudden she smiles at him and says, kind of offhandedly, “How’d you like to crawl in the back and roll around for a while?”
And she means it, but we can’t have everything in this life, so just then she gets a call on the CB, and she has to rescind the offer and get back to work. She’s a pro, it turns out. Not to judge. She meets her clients at a diner. They’re the bikers from earlier, and when they see Linda showing up with Too Sweet they throw some racist shit at her that turns into a brawl, and Too Sweet tries to help. Next thing you know he’s in the eponymous correctional facility.
Before Too Sweet arrives, though, there are some weird scenes of the type of weirdos he’s gonna have to co-exist with here. Most notably there’s Half Dead (Badja Djola, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, WHO’S THE MAN?), a dude with shaving cream on his face, barking like a dog, playing with a toy gorilla, attacking a new guy, tricking him into showing him his ass. This guy does not seem healthy. Obviously he ends up being Too Sweet’s cellmate.
Half Dead tries to act nice. He has a box of Mr. Goodbars and offers one to Too Sweet. Too Sweet says no. He tries to get him to read one of his porno mags. No.
Too Sweet’s not stupid. He knows there would be a price. That night he jumps Half Dead. There’s a long, brutal close-quarters fight, two gangly but muscular shirtless bodies throwing each other and smashing each other in this small little space. It’s an intense and thrilling fight that upstages any of the boxing matches that will happen later. The other inmates smile, listening to the screams of agony.
When it’s all done, Half Dead is face first on the ground. Too Sweet has blood all over him. He walks over, takes the box of Mr. Goodbars, sits down and enjoys one.
It’s a supreme badass move, but it’s also kinda sad. This is a good guy, and this is how he has to acquit himself to survive in the Penitentiary. It shouldn’t be this way.
Like the later UNDISPUTED series this involves a grey market inmate boxing tournament organized by Chuck Mitchell, the guy that played Porky in the PORKY’S saga. Prizes include conjugal visits and a good word from the warden’s brother-in-law on the parole board. It’s not as elaborate or serious as in UNDISPUTED. There’s no Ed Lover or equivalent doing commentary. It’s just a ring in a small room and they bus in inmates from the nearby women’s prison as an audience. Some of the inmates figure out how to sneak off to the bathroom for co-ed sex encounters during the fights, which never turns into any drama, so I guess it’s just a way to get some boobs and female moaning into the movie.
The two fighters we focus on never even wanted to be boxers. Too Sweet just happens to know how to fight, and he tries to teach Eugene (Thommy Pollard, no other credits) how to stand up for himself. When he gets in some fights and is determined to be a contender, he’s stuck with grey-haired trainer Hezzikia “Seldom Seen” Jackson (Floyd Chatman, GETTING OVER), who at first doesn’t like him but of course warms to him. He’s kind of like Yoda, because when Too Sweet says he’s gonna try Seldom Seen says “With me you’re gonna do more than try. You’re gonna win.”
Whenever the warden gets the boxer riled up with talk of the “convivial visit” prize, Seldom Seen looks dour and avoids joining in the celebrations. Eventually Too Sweet hassles him about it and he gives a great monologue about why after 35 years in there it will drive him crazy if he allows himself to want “pussy” or anything else from the outside.
If you do not have a lady to get conjugal with, a lady will be provided for you. So when Too Sweet ends up winning the prize he ends up in a trailer with none other than Linda. At first this seems like a satisfying reunion, the conclusion to the world’s longest cockblock. But then all the sudden he turns mean and threatens her for letting him take the rap. She admits she shot the biker in self defense and ran off. She didn’t mean for him to be blamed, but she had to protect herself.
The end of this scene is a real fuckin bummer. He leaves her in tears. She takes a minute to get herself together, then picks up the phone and tells somebody to send the next guy in. Poor Linda.
Like STREET WARS this has a very matter-of-fact depiction of a trans person, Sweet Pea, played by Wilbur “Hi-Fi” White. She sits with the women at the boxing matches and talks alot of shit. Fanakaa says on the commentary track that White was a great gay rights activist. There’s also a part that sort of ridicules a character for being homophobic. He’s getting beat up by a gay guy and it’s really upsetting to him. After nearly getting KOd he hallucinates his opponent as being in drag.
This is a scrappy, sort of ponderous movie, and the boxing matches are never really exciting in the traditional sports movie sense. But it’s a special movie because it says so much about us. Go ahead, America – throw this man in a cell for defending himself from racists. Put him in a world where he has to be violent to survive. Punish him for fighting to defend himself, then tell him to fight again as a sport, for your benefit. Even train him. Get excited to see an organized fight between the same two guys you just gave 14 days in the hole for fighting of their own accord. Threaten them if they fight outside of the ring.
You disproportionately put black men into this hellish place, and if they ever get out and still have this violent mentality, then you use that as an excuse for why you disproportionately lock up black men! A snake eating its racist tail.
I don’t know the answers. Obviously there are dangerous people I want to keep safely away from the rest of us. Killers, rapists, amoral bankers. But some of the barbaric things we do supposedly in the name of civilization tend to make things worse. We punish instead of rehabilitate, avenge instead of resolve. Revenge is fun, especially in our movies and day dreams, but in real life it’s counterproductive. Just like we create new generations of terrorists in the name of stopping the current one, we make worse criminals in the name of cutting down on crime. We take away parents in the name of protecting children from drugs. We fight our problems with a prison mentality, but from the safety of our homes. “Hey, military, go out there and show that you’re the baddest motherfucker in the prison yard, so they won’t mess with you. I’ll be over here.”
All Too Sweet can do is hold his head and fists high and try to make it through this gauntlet. He starts the movie a drifter and has to fight for his life, first from racists, then from inmates. He ends the movie back on the same road he started out on. Slowest hitchhike ever. But it’s a nice day, and he slept with a roof over his head last night instead of a tent. Maybe things will go better this time.