You've never seen boxing movies quite like this pair from the late Jamaa Fanaka. 1979's Penitentiary and 1982's Penitentiary II may be worlds apart in terms of budget and execution, but both bear the mark of an artist struggling to shape his revolutionary ideals into entertaining cinema and he managed to do so pretty well, at least in the case of the first film.
A couple of years ago Connecticut based indie home video label Vinegar Syndrome announced a deal partnering them with Xenon Films to release a number of classic black action films including the major works of Rudy Ray Moore, along with the available films of Fanaka. This is the first output from Fanaka as part of that deal and it all looks better than ever. Check out the overviews below for more details.
Penitentiary is fearless filmmaking from a director who gave no shits about sanitizing his vision for the masses. Jamaa Fanaka was still very much in the fight that many in the black filmmaking community had moved on from in 1979, years after the death of the Blaxploitation boom. He'd already made a couple of low budget features, but Penitentiary was the one that made him a force to be reckoned with. Utilizing themes that sadly remain relevant to this day, Fanaka painted a portrait of a world in which Black Americans have the chips stacked against them at every turn, and wrongful imprisonment isn't the exception but the rule. Forced to brutalize one another for the entertainment of the power structure, Penitentiary is a metaphor for the Black American experience unlike any other. Exploitative and intellectual all at the same time, it remains a masterpiece.
Martel Gordone is just a brother minding his own business trying to get a little but further on down the road when he's picked up by a beautiful young woman while hitchhiking. The pair quickly hit the sheets as a way of passing the time, but things quickly go south when they make a stop and all hell breaks loose. In an unexpected kerfuffle, a white hooligan is killed and while Gordone is defending his lady, and he's convicted of the crime and sent up the river. Once inside the jail he finds that society and civilization are all but lost as the Pen has its own ideas about what passes for good behavior.
Martel is shacked up with a crazy eyed prisoner named Half Dead who takes a liking to his fresh meet cellmate. When Martel rejects Half Dead's advances, the two go at it and a blood feud begins. When the prison power structure sees the kind of fighting prowess Gordone has, he's wrangled into stepping into the boxing ring for the entertainment of the guards and the warden. If he wins the annual tournament against the reigning champ Jesse "The Bull" Amos, Martel "Too Sweet" Gordone has a chance of getting out early, but it's not going to be easy.
Packed with political poignance and blunt treatises of the state of Blacks in America, Penitentiary is a cornerstone of Black revolutionary cinema on the same level as films like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Do the Right Thing. The fact that it's only been familiar to exploitation fans for decades is almost as much of a criminal act as the incarceration of Too Sweet, himself. Thankfully Xenon and Vinegar Syndrome are here to right the wrong that has been done to the film by providing it with a new lease on life. We owe it to Fanaka to spread the love.
Penitentiary comes to Blu-ray in a gorgeous new 4K restoration from Vinegar Syndrome that blows all previous releases out of the water. The film is gritty and real, with blood, sweat, tears, and grime oozing from every frame. Vinegar Syndrome's release plays tribute to all that work with some heavy duty work of their own. The new transfer is excellent, with fine detail bursting from the screen and a wonderful filmic texture. The audio is quite solid as well, supporting the dialogue, effects, and score handsomely. All in all another great A/V presentation.
Vinegar Syndrome brings a healthy number of extras to the table with Penitentiary as well. Sadly, Fanaka passed a few years ago, but he is represented here by an archival audio commentary that is very informative, there is also a second commentary from 2nd AD Sergio Mims that offers even more context. In terms of interviews, we get one with star Leon Isaac Kennedy (Too Sweet), cinematographer Marty Ollstein, and producer Alicia Dhanifu, all of which have their own value in adding to the contextualization of the film. I really enjoyed the Kennedy interview as he and Fanaka seem to have seen the story and character of Too Sweet very similarly, the interview also talks a lot about Kennedy's career before and after Penitentiary.
Penitentiary is not only a great film, it's an important one, and Vinegar Syndrome has more than done it justice. Definitely recommended.