Penitentiary (1979)
By: Julian on April 9, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Dark Horse Entertainment (Australia). All Regions, PAL. 1.70:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 98 minutes
The Movie
Director: Jamaa Fanaka
Starring: Isaac Kennedy, Thommy Pollard, Hazel Spears, Donovon Womack, Floyd Chatman, Chuck Mitchell
Screenplay: Jamaa Fanaka
Country: USA
External Links
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He's too fast, two fisted, TOO SWEET! The tagline appealed to the insatiable exploitation appetites of the grimy characters who frequented the 42nd Street grindhouses. A mainstay in the Deuce's Roxy Theatre, Penitentiary was blaxploitation director Jamaa Fanaka's third and best-known picture, spawning two sequels and earning the accolade of the most successful independent film of 1980.

Penitentiary is an unusual genre blend, characterised by its non-conformity to the regular conventions of the blaxploitation flick (wherein a black man (or woman) comes out trumps above his white oppressors amidst much sex and violence) and its (perceived) scathing social comment.

Leon Isaac Kennedy stars as Martel Gordone, a young black man sent to the roughest, toughest prison after killing a white man who was beating up a prostitute. Inside, Martel's love for lollies (a euphemism, surely) earns him the name 'Too Sweet', and he is forced to defend himself against the prison gangs and fight against the obese, cigar-chewing warden Lieutenant Arnsworth (Chuck Mitchell) for parole.

When the opportunity to join a boxing team to achieve early release arises, Too Sweet jumps at the chance. Practise occurs regularly working up to the final match, in which the payoff is a week with the women of a neighbouring prison. The chickadees get to watch and while some cheer watching their compatriots beat each other in the ring, others are banged on the sly by the male prisoners in the toilets. Under the mentorship of a grizzled institutionalised literature connoisseur 'Seldom Seen' Jackson (Floyd Chatman), Too Sweet vows to win the competition to get a premature parole. His main obstacle however is 'Half Dead' Johnson (Badja Djola), a formidable con who, aside from wanting to beat him in the ring, is eager to make Too Sweet his bitch.

In an interview with Fanaka, the writer-director was quizzed about the naturalistic quality of Penitentiary, from its dialogue to its gritty portrayal of prison life. His response was, 'Do you think George Lucas has ever been into outer space?… I have managed thus far to avoid penitentiary incarceration.' It's an incredible thing, given that Penitentiary has long been lauded for its realism in depicting the cogs of prison life. Fanaka's film has also been praised for its social commentary inasmuch as it contemptuously shows the harsh and, at worst, sadistic side of prison life, depicting how far one man must go to find justice. This is, however, a decidedly arch and pretentious reading – there are vague observations to this extent in the film, but whether Fanaka was intending to create such an atmosphere is doubtful. After all, we're watching a blaxploitation movie set in a prison, where the inmates are beating the shit out of each other to get a root. To call this a work akin to other seventies social commentaries – Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, Scorsese's Taxi Driver et al is more-than-slight overpraise.

What is particularly commendable about Penitentiary, above any delusions of grandeur Fanaka had as the film's scribe, is the acting. Kennedy makes his lead debut here, and it's a fantastic piece of acting, among the best I've seen in a blaxploitation film. Chatman too turns in a convincing performance and Fanaka directs well given the obvious zero-budget he's been given. As far as the plot itself is concerned, Penitentiary makes for some engrossing viewing up to a point – the sweaty, down-and-dirty boxing matches juxtaposed with the equally grimy sex scenes is an awesome vignette, but it is repeated often and, like a very good joke, becomes less and less appealing every time we see it. There's a bit of yawn-inducing padding designed to segue into the next gritty scene of prison violence and, while some of it is necessary, most of it is not, and just detracts from the film's overall appeal.

But the appeal is certainly there. Penitentiary is a well-made film and has proved to be a lasting work, earning a substantial cult fan base over the years. Fanaka filmed two sequels with Kennedy in the starring role in 1982 and 1987. Both films have the dubious honour of being among the lowest-rated on the Internet Movie Database, with a two and a 1.8 out of ten star rating respectively. Fanaka only directed one other film after the final Penitentiary sequel, the subpar crime flick Street Wars,in 1992. Street Wars received equally poor acclaim, and was considered overly derivative of another blaxploitation icon's 1991 feature New Jack City(which was helmed by Mario Van Peebles). With his new films a shadow of his former work, Fanaka faded into obscurity. 

Overall, Penitentiary comes recommended. It's an above-average exploitation picture, with all the unintentional laughs, violence and sordidness to make it a genre hit. Fans of Shaft, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and the like will especially dig where Fanaka is coming from with this one.
The picture is presented in an appriximate aspect ratio of 1.70:1 with 16:9 enhancement. It's dull and fairly muddied, but I daresay this was probably the best print DV1 could source.
One English Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track. The audio is uneven and of poor quality but again, chances are DV1 has the best available.
Extra Features
An entertaining and informative feature commentary by Fanaka and a theatrical trailer is included.
The Verdict
Great, rollicking exploitation at rock-bottom price. It may not live up to its reputation as being the most intelligent slice of urban cinema to knock about the plebs at the grindhouses, but it's still a fun ride.
Movie Score
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