Jamaa Fanaka

I did everything they said it takes to make it in the film industry. . . . They said you're [sic] got to have a hot film. I had three successful films. They said you need critical acclaim. I got rave reviews from the Los Angeles Times, Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the NewYork Post. What do you do next?15 Jamaa Fanaka

One of the more colorful and controversial personalities within the directing arena during the 1980s and 1990s, Jamaa Fanaka received perhaps more attention for his personal behavior than for his film directing. Acclaimed by some critics and dismissed by others, Fanaka still searches for industry validation and opportunities he declares are due him.

Born in 1949, Fanaka and his family moved from Mississippi to Comp-ton, California, when he was twelve. He beat the odds and attended UCLA as an undergraduate and graduate student, and in the mid-'7os, two of his student films ''were commercially released and got him some attention from critics.''16 But by the '80s, the director seemed to be colliding with the industry on various levels. In 1983, his deal to make Street Wars with Indigo Pictures, owned by Richard Pryor, fell through. In the press, Fanaka accused the parent company, Columbia Studios, of denying not only his film, but money promised to other black filmmakers as well. Then, in the late '90s, Fanaka was at war with the Directors Guild of America, with news-making incidents in 1997 and 1998 at various guild events. Accused of disrupting meetings, rude behavior, and using profanity against guild members, the DGA suspended Fanaka's membership for two years in October 1998 ''for conduct deemed 'prejudicial to the welfare of the guild and unbecoming of a DGA member.' ''17

As a filmmaker at UCLA, Fanaka's first film, Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975), which he wrote, produced, and directed, has been described as a movie ''dealing with a returning black Vietnam War veteran whose outrage at injustices on the home front lead to shocking, perverse results.''18 His next film, completed for his master's thesis, was Emma Mae (1976), a movie that ''Fanaka considers a tribute to the strength and resilience of black womanhood.''19

Fanaka's Penitentiary trilogy, however, comprises his best-known work. Collectively, the series of movies focuses on ''the chronic problems of incarceration: the overcrowding, the hardened inmates misguiding the more innocent, the racial bigotry, and the rampant homosexuality.''20 After the success of the first movie in the series, Penitentiary II (1982) was dismissed by most critics and did very little business at the box office,21 as it was cited for being ''dreary and predictable'' with ''several irrelevant subplots that weave through the film without adding anything to it.''22 Penitentiary III (1987), though heavier with action than the first installment, came off as bizarre and over-the-top in characterization and situations. Its unevenness in tone, acting, and visual quality provoked mixed reactions and made it less than memorable.

Penitentiary (1979), the first in the trilogy, remains the most solid and accomplished of the trio of movies, all of which follow the experiences of the central character, Martel ''Too Sweet'' Gordone. In this film, a black drifter named Too Sweet (Leon Isaac Kennedy) hitches a ride with Linda (Hazel Spear), a prostitute who schedules her professional appointments over a CB radio as she drives her van along the barren highways. Too Sweet joins

Leon Isaac Kennedy
Too Sweet (Leon Isaac Kennedy) is a fighting machine in Penitentiary and its two sequels.

Linda at a diner, where she approaches two white bikers as her prospective clients. A fight erupts and Too Sweet is knocked unconscious. He awakens as a prison inmate.

Behind bars, Too Sweet meets a menagerie of personalities: Lt. Arns-worth (Chuck Mitchell), the white officer in charge of the prison; Eugene (Thommy Pollard), a shy black inmate who eventually learns to stand up for himself; Jesse (Donovan Womack), an arrogant black cell-block leader; Half Dead (Badja Djola), a sadistic black inmate with ties to Jesse; Sweet Pea

(Wilfred White), a black homosexual; and Seldom Seen (Floyd Chatman), the elderly black inmate who becomes Too Sweet's friend and boxing trainer.

Too Sweet's pugilistic skills draw the attention of Lt. Arnsworth, who has an ongoing prison training camp to discover boxers that his brother-in-law can manage professionally on the outside. Arnsworth announces an upcoming boxing tournament where the grand prize is a conjugal visit. Too Sweet wins and discovers that his prize is Linda, the prostitute from the film's opening scene. She confesses to an angry Too Sweet that when he was knocked unconscious in the diner, one of the bikers attempted to rape her, so she stabbed him. When the cops arrived, they charged Too Sweet with the killing. As the film ends, Too Sweet wins a final boxing championship and is leaving prison, with the promise that Seldom Seen will also be paroled to work with him as a trainer.

As writer and director, Fanaka is intent upon weaving a tale of revelation that will open the viewer's perspectives on incarceration, particularly concerning black men in jail. He might have done this kind of exposé without the element of boxing as part of the story line, but its inclusion allows the director to connect to the popularity of the sport. After all, Rocky won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1976, and Rocky II was being released during 1979.

As for the boxing, Leon Isaac Kennedy possesses just the right mixture of good looks and cocky attitude to make him believable. With the taut, lean build of a welterweight fighter, the actor has quick moves and a style that mimics Muhammad Ali. Fanaka swings between long and medium shots to show the fights, which could use more polished choreography. Although he refrains from the quick cutting, editing, and sound design that are found in both Rocky and Raging Bull (1980), the various boxing matches do contain energy, if not the more crisp visual look of a big-budget film. On another level, the boxing serves as a metaphor for the struggle that Fanaka views as innate to black manhood. Too Sweet, as the story's protagonist, represents that black man who is battling the ongoing system where whites enjoy power, as well as those blacks who have been used and destroyed by that system. Boxing delivers a visual message about the black man's sociopolitical status in the larger society.

Interestingly enough, Penitentiary is the most powerful when it deals directly with the subject of manhood. For example, when Too Sweet proudly announces to Seldom Seen about the tournament prize of the conjugal visit, the elderly trainer dismisses the value of the sexual tryst. The older man tries to teach Too Sweet about valuing himself and about rejecting what the system gives him. Later, as Too Sweet is about to leave prison, Seldom Seen is reluctant to go along. In a sequence that presages Frank Darabont's Shawshank

Redemption (1994), the older man admits that he's afraid to leave prison because the inside provides a world that has meaning and in which he is respected. But the younger Too Sweet counters that inside the prison there's one thing missing—hope. Here, the younger inmate teaches the older convict that life beyond prison walls can offer a freedom and hope that can never exist behind bars.

Although the three directors here—Gordy, Lathan, and Fanaka—would not be the better-known film directors of the decade, they managed to give the black images of the 1970s something beyond the stereotypical fare of the black urban action genre. The three came to film directing via such different avenues, yet their films do connect to elements of African American culture that were being neglected during the '70s. Regardless of their critical reputations in the pantheon of filmmakers, Gordy, Lathan, and Fanaka deserve to be credited with reminding audiences, both then and now, that African American men and women have endeavored to find their dignity and significance in all milieus of American society.

Boxing Simplified

Boxing Simplified

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