We’re getting back to some good old blaxploitation with this week’s B-Movie Enema. Penitentiary was written, produced, and directed by Jamaa Fanaka.
Fanaka was part of the L.A. Rebellion from the late 60s and into the late 80s. This was a movement of black filmmakers whose whole intent was to make films that offered an alternative to what most deemed “classical” Hollywood films. This was mostly influenced by Latin American and Italian cinema, but also from an emerging African cinema.
You see, the 1960s was a particularly turbulent time. After a series of events like the Civil Rights Act, Affirmative Action, and the Watts Riots, society shifted and evolved very quickly. Affirmative Action allowed for many more black students to attend colleges – and particularly at UCLA which got urged to create an ethnographic studies program to allow black filmmakers to tell more of their story and stories that would expose their struggles.
Another thing that was exceptionally common in these days were African Americans, particularly male African Americans, were being imprisoned with little to no justice to prove they had nothing to do with the crimes they were charged for. You could say this is something that still happens today. You could say that – and you’d likely be correct. But in the 60s and 70s, young black men would very easily get picked up in areas of town some felt they “didn’t belong in” and get tossed into jail with trumped up charges and find out that the key was long ago thrown away.
That’s what Fanaka worked with. Not only was his Penitentiary trilogy about the topic with his hero Martel Gordone needing to use his boxing skills to try to win his freedom, but his previous film from 1975, Welcome Home, Brother Charles, also dealt with a similar theme of a wrongfully imprisoned black man. What’s most interesting about Fanaka, and what mostly set him apart from the L.A. Rebellion, was that he was not anti-Hollywood. In fact, he was quite the opposite, he was quite fascinated with the Hollywood way of filmmaking, and found a lot of the L.A. Rebellion contentious discussions of ideology and artistic technique something that wasn’t really his flavor. He still wanted to tell stories of the African American struggle, but he still had an aversion to the ways this school of thought that rose out of the L.A. Rebellion adhered to.
In 1979, we were coming down to the end of the blaxploitation era. I’d also argue that most of what the L.A. Rebellion was doing was likely not so much blaxploitation, but legitimate cinema. They were doing B-movies. They were also doing important work. However, Fanaka was working within tougher, exploitation-like themes. Then, with the popularity of boxing films thanks to the huge success of Rocky in 1976 and Rocky II just released a few months before this film, well… You have a recipe for a tough, engaging film about wrongful imprisonment and literally fighting for freedom.
Our movie opens with a couple guys on bikes. They definitely don’t look like the kind you’d want to run into on a dark, empty highway. They find a black fella sleeping under a tarp on the side of the road. While they do kick some dust onto him with their bikes, they mostly leave him alone and move on. The man, Martel Gordone, had been hanging out and wandering aimlessly out in the desert. Martel’s luck turns around with a super foxy lady picks him up and lets him ride with her for a bit in her van.
She even asks Martel what he thinks to the idea of rolling around in the back of her van with her. However, before he can answer, she gets a call on her CB radio (and her call name is Beaver-1 just so you know) and has to go meet up from a couple “customers”. Turns out, she’s a hooker. She approaches the two bikers from the opening and asks if they are the two guys she was supposed to fuck. Whether they are or not, they call her a whore and call Martel the N-word, and Martel has to beat the shit out of them.
Snap to credits and then to this guy in jail:
This dude has a lit cigarette in his ear and a broken cigarette, that isn’t lit, in his hand. A couple guys are arguing over some shit. Another guy is barking and screaming and shaking a rubber monkey in people’s faces while he has foamy soap in his beard. This guy is pretty crazy and constantly wants to see people’s asses to see if they are the one he cut on the butt after he caught the guy with his old lady. It’s crazy.
Well, six months pass, and Martel has been sent to the prison. As it turns out, he was charged with murder of one of the bikers. The prison yard is a real happenin’ place with music, people training to fight, and just a general party happening. Martel is cellmates with a guy named “Half Dead” Johnson. Half Dead is a very large guy and he likes pumping iron. He also wants to pump Martel’s ass. However, he does tell Martel about a boxing tourney coming up. But, you know, he also says there’s a lot of fools in the clink with them and sometimes little guys (like Martel) find themselves a bigger dude (like Half Dead) to get a little protection.
Speaking of… a fight breaks out when one guy’s little bitch forgets to sit down to pee and he gets the shit kicked out of him for it.
Here’s an interesting thing about the power structure here in the prison… It’s a little bit like watching a hard R-rated prison version of She’s All That. The guys that are part of Half Dead’s crew are all sitting around talking after TV time is over for the night. Half Dead is talking about wanting to break off a piece of Martel’s ass. They are giving him a hard time like he can’t get up in him and stuff. But Half Dead wants the opportunity to break him in and make him a bitch. It’s like watching a bunch of horndog guys in a boner comedy talking about setting up a bet to sleep with the valedictorian or the head cheerleader or something.
There is a problem though… Half Dead’s crew thinks there’s something about Martel that doesn’t make this a slam dunk proposal and he might have to back off. So here we are, night #1 of Half Dead trying to get some of that ass. He offers Martel a Mr. Goodbar. He then offers some titty mags. Then, everyone in the cell block hear some crazy sounds from Half Dead. What they don’t know is that Martel has him in a headlock. Half Dead bites Martel to release the headlock and he’s about to choke out Martel but he keeps fighting.
I do have to say, I’ve never seen a guy fight so hard to fuck another guy before in my life.
This scene is really, really raw and it goes on for a long, long time. But it does serve a purpose. There are several times in this movie, which has already started to do so a few times to this point, that allusions to ownership, freedom, slavery, etc. are made. We’re seeing guys fighting in just their underwear in extremely brutal ways. Not only are people talking about owning each other like some of the most tragic and dark times in our country’s history, but I can’t help but see some symbolism in how Martel and Half Dead are fighting in a sweaty cell with only their briefs on that compares to something a little more tribal.
When it’s over, Martel forces Half Dead to tell his gang that it is Martel, who’s now taken the name “Too Sweet”, that has made Half Dead his bitch. Now Too Sweet is the cock of the walk at the prison. The next day, the guy who got his ass kicked over not peeing sitting down, Eugene, is bruised up. Eugene tells Too Sweet about the way things are around here with ownership and such. Jesse Amos, the guy who “owns” Eugene, gives Too Sweet some shit about talking to his guy, and Too Sweet kicks the shit out of them.
Too Sweet and Amos go to the hole for two weeks. When they are let out, the head of the prison, Lt. Arnsworth, tells Too Sweet about the deal he has with the prison’s occupants. Whoever wins the illegal boxing tourney Arnsworth runs, that person gets an early parole thanks to some strings he can pull with his brother. Too Sweet decides to join the boxing team after he learns that Eugene joined the team to fight back against those who mess with him.
The old guy who took a shine to Too Sweet after he kicked the hell out of Half Dead is now Too Sweet’s cellmate and boxing trainer.
That signals the start of what every good boxing movie has… a fuckin’ montage. Seems like just about everyone in the cell block is on the boxing team. They are all sparring. They are all training. It’s a legit boxing movie. Lt. Arnsworth comes in and tells everyone that, first, he’s got some of the ladies from the women’s prison to cheer them on, and, second, winners of the various events will get the opportunity to spend the night in a trailer in the yard with a lady. If you don’t have a lady, Arnsworth will supply one for them.
While Eugene fights, one of the male prisoners and one of the lady prisoners go for a hot fuck sesh in the bathroom. Eugene takes some shots in the fight, but he’s got spirit. Amos tries to stop the fight, but Eugene doesn’t want none of that. Eugene eventually pops his competition so hard that while the guy is trying to get his senses about him back, he looks up to see this…
There have been a few smaller jokes in this, Beaver-1 being the traveling hooker, the guy in the bathroom hiding in the ceiling for a lady to come in that he can score some strange off of, the fact that Eugene’s opponent keeps hitting the ref, but Eugene in lingerie is the the broadest joke they played up to in this movie. There’s a male inmate that is now a transvestite and boy crazy, but it isn’t quite like a dazed person seeing Eugene in lingerie. It’s a nice tip of the hat that the movie isn’t taking itself too seriously. Eugene, needless to say, wins, as does the guy in the bathroom who is getting some serious pussy. Not only that, but Eugene isn’t getting mauled in the ass by Amos.
Time for more montage! Too Sweet and the Old Man are building a sweet, almost father and son type of relationship. Eugene is gaining confidence… maybe too much confidence. Amos tells Eugene, there’s nothing more he needs to do to prove himself, but Eugene is pretty hopped up on wanting to continue to prove he’s not just some other guy’s bitch. Generally speaking, spirits seem up.
At the night fight night, Eugene is fighting hard again – this time against Half Dead. Too Sweet tells him to slow it down and pace himself, but he’s not listening. Sure enough, Eugene is over-confident, and leaves himself open for a huge hit from Half Dead. When he comes back around, Eugene is ecstatic that he was legit knocked out and celebrates with Half Dead. That night, Eugene stands up to Amos saying he’s learned that he will no longer let anyone take from him he doesn’t want to give. What’s he got to lose? He’s kicked a little ass, and he’s already been knocked out so that’s nothing new either. Eugene feels untouchable at this point because they can’t do to him anything that he hasn’t had already experienced.
In Too Sweet’s cell, he tries to get his manager, Hezzikia, to react to the prospect of winning a fight and getting laid, but the old man explains himself and how he’s different than the other, younger prisoners. He’s been in this prison for 35 years. Before that, he was in another prison for 15 years. He doesn’t think it is worth getting worked up over a “pussy for a week” contest. He cares most about survival. He only concerns himself with his own contentment. He keeps his mind agile to stay sane. He also believes that if he can’t have all that Too Sweet can have, he doesn’t want anything. He’s only concerned with what is realistic for himself.
Hezzikiah calls it being institutionalized. But he almost makes it seem like it is hopeless too. Hezzikiah isn’t willing to play the games that might help the inmates either be controlled or killing each other. At the same time, though, he understands he is also kept. He’s the bird in a cage, happy to sing and do what he can to keep himself sane, but he’ll never get to fly free either. He sure as hell doesn’t want to be associated with those who can have both.
Too Sweet wins his match and he gets to have a visit with a lady. That lady is Linda, also known as Beaver-1, alias super foxy lady from the beginning.
Things get a little dicey, though. He asks her if she remembers him. She plays at first that she only knows the name they gave her. However, she remembers everything. When he was passed out at the diner after fighting with the bikers, one of them chased Linda to the kitchen where she stabbed one of them to die. She let Too Sweet take the fall for it for herself. So, for doing a good deed to keep her from being beat up, Martel got sent to prison, maybe for the rest of his life.
Too Sweet goes back to his cell while Linda cleans herself up and calls the Lieutenant to send another inmate in for her.
Later, Too Sweet is told that he probably is the best fighter, but he needs another year working with Hezzikia, and Amos is going to be the one released and sent out to fight for Arnsworth’s brother-in-law. Meanwhile, Eugene overhears that Half Dead and the rest of Amos’ gang plan to kill someone – Too Sweet. To save his, Eugene takes Half Dead’s knife, while Too Sweet fights the other guy off. Too Sweet nearly strangles Half Dead to death but Hezzikia stops him. Eugene dies.
Too Sweet tells Amos he knows he set it all up. So he tells Hezzikia to let Arnsworth know that if he wants to see a real rumble, they’ll give it to him. And… Well, they do. Too Sweet and Amos go at it big time. Amos is 50 pounds bigger than Too Sweet so it’s a hard fight, but he gives the bigger man all he can. Like a good Rocky movie, both fighters are terribly bruised and have broken bones all over the place, but when the fight goes into silent slow motion, Too Sweet remembers what it is he is fighting for…
So that Amos could have himself a little bit of an Apollo Creed reaction when he thinks he’s finally beaten the underdog:
But unlike Rocky, Too Sweet wins at the end of the first movie. Arnsworth tells Too Sweet that Hezzikia can be released too if he can prove that he will be a benefit to society. Hezzikia is a afraid though. He doesn’t know how to function in the world. Inside, he’s somebody. Out there, he wouldn’t have anything. Too Sweet tells him that he may have respect inside, but he doesn’t have hope. Too Sweet thinks they can at least try to make it because they’ll have each other.
This is a really good movie. It is a little light on plot with the only real through line being that Too Sweet was busted for a murder he didn’t commit and he’s fighting his way out. But that’s okay because there’s lots of other good stuff here. You can still pepper your movie with the stuff about being owned, having freedom, what it means to be respected, but also what it means to fight for hope.
There is also something to say about Hezzikia’s struggle too. For 50 of his 65 years, he’s been in jail. Inside, he means something and he is left alone. He is able to listen to whatever music he wants, watch whatever TV he wants, and read his books to keep his mind sharp. However, is that worth trading for the shackles he lives in just to be content?
At some point I’ll get around to Penitentiary II and Penitentiary III, but for now, it’s time for lights out. So I’ll tuck Too Sweet and Hezzikia in and look toward next week. So what tough, socially important film will I do for the next B-Movie Enema? Oh yeah, there’s only one movie that can follow up Penitentiary. Yup, it’s Teen Witch.
Wait… The fuck?