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PENITENTIARY Director, Jamaa Fanaka, Passes.
Well, this is caps off a pretty sucky Monday:
Jamaa Fanaka, director of 1979 indie hit Penitentiary, has died. He was 69 years old.
Penitentiary was something of a forefather to the indie black cinema movement, completed in fact when Fanaka was in film school at UCLA. The director’s death is said to be diabetes-related.
Penitentiary is the story of Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone, played by Leon Issac Kennedy, who is somewhat unjustly imprisoned for murdering a biker. Gordone joins the prison boxing team and fights in a tournament in a bid to obtain an early release. In his way are a litany of awesomely named foes and the usual prison flick departmental corruption.
The film is cheap and nasty, but seriously, check these character names, arguably the finest of any Blaxploitation film ever:
That’s some good stuff right there.
I picked up Penitentiary about fifteen years ago as an ex-rental VHS. The cover was photocopied for some reason, even though the tape itself was legit. I paid two bucks for it. Best two bucks I ever spent. While not as slick as the Corman movies, or any other studio film for that matter, Penitentiary doesn’t look any worse than numerous cheapies pumped out in the ‘70s, and indeed the film contains some really nice directorial flourishes, as I recall (the tape is boxed up at my Dad’s house), especially during the fight sequences.
Deadline has the news of Fanaka’s death and a really nice write-up on his life, career and, of particular interest, his film school education.
While the two Penitentiary sequels (the second featuring Mr T!) are sadly pretty wretched, do yourself a favour and check out the original. Rest in peace, Jamaa, thanks for giving the teenage me some crazy jailbird thrills.