Drop the soap at your own risk.
Anyone who’s had to wander aimlessly around Hollywood Video, unsure if The Princess Bride would fall under Family, Comedy, Romance, or Cult Films, only to find it eventually in the Staff Picks section knows the concept of film genres. You also know that some films defiantly place themselves somewhere in between the easy-to-label categories. Penitentiary spans no less than three genres that were almost exclusively in vogue during the 1970s: blaxploitation, prison movies, and boxing movies. I think you’ll be able to understand where I’m coming from when I talk about Penitentiary if I give a little background on those genres.
While discussing this film with family and friends, I’ve found that “blaxploitation” isn’t the universally understood term I thought it was. The word itself is an amalgam of two others: “black” and “exploitation.” Putting value judgments aside for a moment, generally blaxploitation employs stereotypes regarding black people, exploiting these stereotypes for entertainment purposes. I can see this cutting both ways. On one hand, it’s empowering. It gave black filmmakers (and many of these films were written and/or directed by African-Americans) the opportunity to make movies about their culture. On the other hand, these movies only added credence to the stereotypes (true or not) that black men are thugs and sex machines, that black women are sluts and deserve to be called “bitches” and “hos,” and that pimpin’ and dealin’ are worth — noble, even — professions. It’s the same as if Sweden only churned out films about big-breasted bikini models, or if every Jewish film featured an oy-veh, clingy, complaining Jewish mother. (Now mind you, that’s all just my opinion, and should be taken as such.) The two films that kicked off the genre were Melvin Van Peeple’s Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (one, two, three, four, five…yep, that’s enough s’s) and Shaft. The two movies proved two very different principles of Hollywood economics: the former that there was a market for independent films made by African-Americans, the latter that there was a market for African-American-directed films bankrolled by major Hollywood studios. The biggest stars of the genre were Richard Roundtree (the eponymous Shaft), Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Pam Grier. The blaxploitation genre began in 1971, and began to peter out around 1976 when groups such as the NAACP complained that the films were racist.
Prison movies…what sort of image does that conjure up? There’s the noble films — The Great Escape, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile. Then there’s that image I have of prison movies, replete with all the stereotypes (again, true or not) of the trials of prison life: fights in the yard, shivs made of any piece of metal at hand, and of course, the ever-present fear of anal rapings.
I don’t know if you can necessarily call boxing movies a genre of the 1970s. After all, there were only two major films to come to the public’s attention: 1976’s Rocky and 1980s Raging Bull. I suppose I think of boxing movies that way because Rocky spawned enough sequels of its own that followed the exact formula it established. It’s not fair to mention Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull in the same paragraph, because it’s a character study, not a film about boxing per se.
That’s a lot of exposition to prove my point about Penitentiary. To be honest, it’s far more interesting to talk about the issues surrounding Penitentiary than to talk about the movie itself. It’s nothing but a long string of clichés borrowed liberally from the three genres it spans.
Penitentiary begins with Martel Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy) hitching a ride through the desert. He’s picked up by a black cutie in a van tricked out enough to be dubbed the Shaggin’ Wagon. She’s even a prostitute! She takes Martel as far as a greasy spoon in the middle of nowhere where she’s been dispatched via CB radio to meet two clients. At the diner, things shake down rather badly. Martel tussles with the unruly johns. He’s knocked cold…and the next thing we know, he’s been sent to the big house for the murder of one of the men.
In prison, Martel — who has picked up the nickname “Too Sweet” (because of his love of candy bars; I suppose nicknaming him “Candy Bar” would have been too sissyish, or phallic) — goes to great lengths to insure that his anus retains its virginity. He also attracts the attention of Lieutenant Arnsworth (Chuck Mitchell — Porky’s, Porky’s Revenge) who operates the prison’s boxing program. It seems the porky guard’s brother-in-law can pull strings on the parole board, and good boxers can write their ticket to an early parole. Too Sweet trains with Seldom Seen (Floyd Chatman), the movie’s answer to Burgess Meredith in Rocky. He must face down Jesse (Donovan Womack), the baddest brutha on the cellblock.
That’s the plot in a nutshell. There’s a subplot involving Jesse’s “bitch,” a wimpy young man named Eugene, who (with Too Sweet’s encouragement) attempts to prove his manhood in the ring. Another subplot (if you can even call it that) deals with a male and female’s trysts (and by “trysts,” I mean “screwing like little bunnies”) in the prison restroom during the boxing matches. (Apparently, prison wardens can invite over inmates from other prisons for social functions in much the same way that the boys’ summer camp can invite over the girls from the summer camp across the lake.)
Penitentiary was the third theatrical feature directed by African-American director Jamaa Fanaka. Thanks to government grants, he was able to film it while still a student at UCLA. He was able to afford to shoot by making use of limited locations (such as a derelict prison and places around the UCLA campus) and amateur actors. According to the DVD’s promotional materials, Penitentiary was the top-grossing independent film of 1980. The bargain-basement production values add an air of gritty credence to the film, but the uneven acting is irksome. The only characters that seemed at all three-dimensional were Lt. Arnsworth and Seldom Seen. Chuck Mitchell seemed right at home as the cigar-chomping guard. It’s no wonder that he would be one of the few actors go follow the film with any sort of distinction, even if his claim to fame was as the titular owner of a strip club in the teen sleazefest classic, Porky’s. Floyd Chatman only has one other credit listed at the Internet Movie Database, and it’s certainly a shame that he was not a mainstream actor. Seldom Seen is the elder statesman of the cellblock, a wise old man who has spent most of his life behind bars. I’ve already compared him to Burgess Meredith’s character in Rocky. He isn’t as harsh, but has the same tough-but-loving charm. The character seems to have been a reference for Morgan Freeman’s work in The Shawshank Redemption. The movie’s biggest disappointment is Leon Isaac Kennedy. Despite the film’s success, his career never took off. It’s no wonder. His mugging and smirking do not seem to match the character at all, and when he does express rage and anger, there is no conviction behind the emotions.
Penitentiary was the first disc that DVD Verdict received from Xenon Entertainment Group. From their website, this is how they describe themselves: “From its inception, Xenon’s business plan was rooted in the acquisition and marketing of distinct, yet uniquely broad-based genre films. Over the years, we’ve obtained, on a title by title basis, the largest single collection of Black audience films in North America.” (But do yourself a favor and do not visit their site yourself, unless you’re a big fan of sites that would be published in books such as “Web Pages That Suck.” It is an Internet fashion victim of the highest order.) Judging from this one release, I’d say that their DVD production values fall just above Winstar and Fox Lorber, and below Sterling. The film is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen. The transfer is soft and often grainy, and shows more than its fair share of dirt and specks. Still, you have to remember this was a very low-budget production, and does not have the cult cachet of low-budget fare such as Carnival Of Souls or The Evil Dead to warrant extensive and expensive remastering. Audio is presented in two-channel mono. It sounds very mono-y. Extras consist of a commentary track by Jamaa Fanaka, and trailers for Penitentiary and Penitentiary 2: Electric Boogaloo. Just kidding about the “Electric Boogaloo” bit, but I’d be remiss not to mention that Penitentiary 2 was the big-screen debut of Lawrence Tureaud, better known as Mr. T. I pity that fool Too Sweet.
I’ve pulled my punches thus far (you gotta know that I’ve been waiting this entire review to use that pun), but I really need to give my true feelings. Even as an action film, I found Penitentiary to be a waste of time. The fight scenes were poorly choreographed, even by low-budget Hong Kong chop-socky standards. There’s no particular emotional investment in any of the characters. It’s so full of clichés there’s hardly room for originality. There’s the training montage set to peppy music, the attempted anal rapings, shivs, yard fights, “the hole,” redneck guards, ’70s chic CB lingo, the transsexual inmate, bimbos in tight clothing, the tough mentor…the list could go on. All that’s missing is the drop-the-soap-in-the-shower scene.
Let me give you a little background on Jamaa Fanaka. He is a graduate of UCLA’s film school. He made three movies (financed with grants and private donations) while still in school: Soul Vengeance, Emma Mae, and Penitentiary. After Penitentiary, he directed three films, two of which were sequels to Penitentiary. In the mid-1990s, he filed lawsuits against the Directors Guild of America and major movie studios, charging that their hiring practices were racist. It seems he had a hard time finding directorial gigs. All his suits were dismissed prior to trial.
I’ve only seen Penitentiary, but here’s what I’ve gleaned about Fanaka’s other movies. Soul Vengeance tells the story of a man who, in prison, learns to grow his penis to enormous lengths for the purpose of strangling people. I kid you not. The very idea doesn’t weird me out, but it makes me think, “What kind of dumbass came up with that plot?” Penitentiary 2 was pretty much a retread of the first film, except with Mr. T. Penitentiary 3 finds Too Sweet back in prison with an old, crazy white guy and his midget enforcer who ends up teaching Too Sweet mighty mojo secrets. I may just be a white boy from the ‘burbs, but it seems fairly clear to me why Fanaka can’t find a job, and it’s the same reason why George Lucas isn’t going to hand me the plum job of directing Episode 3: he (and I) have precious little to no directorial or screenwriting talent. The packaging refers to Jamaa Fanaka as “legendary.” When I think of legendary film directors, I think of Welles, Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, Curtiz…directors of mighty movies. I don’t think of the guy who made the movie about the strangling schlong.
On the commentary track, Fanaka expresses his surprise that Leon Isaac Kennedy didn’t become a huge star. I suppose he didn’t notice Too Sweet’s laughably poor acting, or that his non-Fanaka films were grade-Z action schlockfests (Skeleton Coast, also starring Ernest Borgnine, Robert Vaughn, The Mummy‘s Arnold Vosloo, and Gladiator‘s late Oliver Reed) or unnecessary, crappy remakes (Body And Soul) made for the sole intention of buying him screen time with former Playboy centerfolds. Oh, and did I mention that his bootleg marital coitus film with his ex-wife, Jayne Kennedy, beat Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson’s to market by at least ten years?
I hate to be so negative. This review stewed in my head for at least a week before I fired up Microsoft Word to put it in writing. I tried to learn all I could about the blaxploitation genre, about Jamaa Fanaka — anything that would help me understand the movie. I honestly admire independent film. If it weren’t for people like Jamaa Fanaka (but not Fanaka himself), there may not be such a booming trade in independent filmmaking today. I have to call into question what I find to be sub-par films, and the subsequent put-upon attitude that he can’t find work strictly because of his ethnicity. Hollywood may be full of “arbitrary and nepotistic” hiring practices, as Fanaka claims, but I’m willing to bet that most Hollywood executives have an eye for quality even if films like Lost In Space or The Story Of Us make it to the big screen. At any rate, at least they have an eye for independent films that will make a few bucks or act as Oscar bait come March. Fanaka’s films were not moneymakers (with the exception of Penitentiary) or Academy Award material. Films about magical midgets and incredible expanding penises only attract Golden Razzie awards.
If you fancy obscure independent cinema, you might want to give Penitentiary a try. I cannot see how it could be taken seriously, however. I think the only way it could be enjoyed would be after a few beers or something. At a suggested retail of $19.95USD, it’s a decent bargain, but I wouldn’t recommend a purchase unless you’ve seen it and know you want it.
At least this film taught me how to spell “penitentiary” with a reasonable degree of accuracy…
Throw ’em in the hole. Bread and water for a week. No time off for good behavior. Court dismissed. Now where did my soap go?