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Posts Tagged ‘Jamaa Fanaka’

Penitentiary III

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019

Well holy shit. I’ve taken my sweet time getting to all three of Jamaa Fanaka’s PENITENTIARY movies, but they’ve all lived up to my hopes. If you’re not familiar, they star Leon Isaac Kennedy (LONE WOLF McQUADE) as Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone, a man who is unjustly incarcerated but becomes a legend in the prison boxing circuit. I’m sure it’s an inspiration for the UNDISPUTED series, but Fanaka’s world is angrier, dirtier, and much, much weirder.

Released in 1979, PENITENTIARY was actually the third movie Fanaka made while attending UCLA. Unlike other directors considered part of the L.A. Rebellion film movement, he was more attracted to Hollywood than to political statements, so he made straight up lurid and entertaining blaxploitation movies. But racism, cruelty and injustice are central to his stories.

PENITENTIARY II (1982) brings the action into the outside world, and it’s a little slicker and more expensive, so it features Mr. T and Ernie Hudson.

But PENITENTIARY III (1987) is a Cannon Film. It is not fucking around. It would be an exaggeration to say that Cannon did to the PENITENTIARY series what they did to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE with part 2, but there’s definitely a hint of that sort of unhinged insanity. We find Too Sweet still a free man, competing as a legitimate boxer, when his corner man is paid off to put something in his water. (That he looks over his shoulder nervously and then just openly pours something into the water in front of an audience without anyone noticing is one of many goofy touches.) (read the rest of this shit…)

Penitentiary II

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

PENITENTIARY II (1982) is that thing we love where a director has been burning it up on the fringes and then they get a little more resources behind them and they really go for it. Still low budget and outside of the mainstream, but more professional than the first PENITENTIARY (1979) or the two other features writer-director Jamaa Fanaka made while still a student at UCLA. So he’s still hungry and crazy, but able to accomplish more. It’s one of the beautiful parts of life.

And you know this shit is gonna be good when there’s an opening scene and then a full credit sequence set to grimy DOLEMITE-esque blaxploitation funk and then a long STAR WARS style scroll explaining in more detail than necessary what’s going on.

The score is by Jack Wheaton, additional music by Marvin Gaye’s guitarist and musical director Gordon Banks. I tend to think that outside of the electro stuff like Zapp and “Atomic Dog,” funk no longer existed in the ’80s. Tell that to these opening credits, though: (read the rest of this shit…)

Penitentiary

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

tn_penitentiaryNot 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. (read the rest of this shit…)

Street Wars

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

tn_streetwars“This film is one I refused not to make.” –Jamaa Fanaka

STREET WARS is a 1992 movie about drug gangs, with a rap soundtrack, but it feels more like blaxploitation than BOYZ N THE HOOD. That’s because it’s, as the credits say, “A Jamaa Fanaka Picture Show.” That’s the director best known for the PENITENTIARY trilogy, but before that he did some weird blaxploitation movies like the killer dick picture SOUL VENGEANCE, aka WELCOME HOME, BROTHER CHARLES. So here he kinda takes the themes of SUPER FLY and stirs them into early ’90s black culture with some of his own weird seasonings.

It definitely falls into the outsider art type category. The awkward home-made filmatism combines with some truly strange ideas to create a surreal experience, a movie that transcends competence. The climax really doesn’t work as action or drama, but it’s so weird I forgave it. The shootouts are always confusing but enthusiastic. There are guns that blow soccer ball sized holes in the sides of cars, and send victims flying through the air looking suspiciously like dummies being sloppily tossed from off screen. (read the rest of this shit…)

Soul Vengeance

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

tn_soulvengeanceAlot of people have recommended the PENITENTIARY trilogy to me over the years. Apparently it’s a pretty crazy movie property franchise of the VHS era, so it made sort of a minor cult legend out of writer-director Jamaa Fanaka. He came out of the UCLA film school and a group of young black filmmakers known as “the L.A. Rebellion.” Other members include Charles Burnett, Julie Dash and Haile Gerima, so he might’ve been the black sheep of the group, being more interested in exploitation type subject matter than his colleagues.

Although the PENITENTIARYs are what he’s known for, Fanaka (who was born Walter Gordon, by the way – he changed it to a Swahili name in college) actually started in the blaxploitation era. His first feature was 1974’s EMMA MAE, better known now as BLACK SISTER’S REVENGE. In 1975 he did WELCOME HOME, BROTHER CHARLES, which we will discuss here under its current video title of SOUL VENGEANCE. (read the rest of this shit…)