Earlier this month, pioneer black director Jamaa Fanaka passed away. His status as a pioneer comes mostly from his being in the L.A. Rebellion, a group of black U.C.L.A. film students in the early 1970s, and from his early independent exploitation flicks. He started out with WELCOME HOME BROTHER CHARLES (1975), a horror film about a black prisoner who murders those who conspired to put him in jail with his, uh, rather large penis. Such social commentary! He followed that with EMMA MAE (aka BLACK SISTER’S REVENGE, 1976), but Fanaka really struck gold with his next film, PENITENTIARY (1979). Focusing on the plight of falsely imprisoned boxer Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy), the film became a surprise hit at the box office over 1979 and 1980.
Reading about Fanaka’s death, I suddenly realized that I’d been aware of the man since probably my early teens when I saw a PENITIARY flick on the video store shelves, but I’d never actually seen any of the 6 feature films he made. I decided to rectify that and gave the two PENITENTIARY sequels a viewing. After watching the second one, I talked with Tom about it via email and came to the same conclusion as him. I’d built these films up in my head (thanks to some great posters on the boxes) and heard so much about how gritty and tough that they were, that I was ultimately let down by how subpar they were. I went in expecting ROCKY (1976) mixed with BRUTE FORCE (1947). What I got was ROCKY by way of Rudy Ray Moore.
PENITENTIARY II (1982) opens with a ridiculously long opening crawl a la STAR WARS (1977) that brings us up on the plight of “Too Sweet” Gordone. Having been released on early parole due to beating Jesse “The Bull” Amos in a prison boxing match, Gordone is supposed to work for a year at the boxing gym owned by the warden’s brother. Wait a sec, this movie is called PENITENTIARY and takes place in the free world? Um, okay. Gordone wants nothing to do with the brutal sport of boxing though, so he takes a job as a roller skating messenger and begins a relationship with Clarisse (Eugenia Wright). He also gets to live rent free with his lawyer sister (Peggy Blow) and her husband (Glynn Turman). Everything seems to be going right for the ex-con and we can't have that happening.
|"Thanks for the ride, lady."|
(If you get that, you're awesome)
while wearing boxing gloves) and shake your head at others (like the aforementioned way they work a prison into the film; apparently you can do boxing shows on national TV from inside prison with real announcers and prisoners can gamble while one con constantly plays the saxophone). To match the nonsensical plotting, Fanaka just has completely random shit in here, like Mr. T showing up at the boxing matches dressed as a genie with a magic lamp that emits purple smoke. This interesting character turn is never explained! There is a creepy angle exploited early on with Half Dead’s fixation on his prey (he literally rapes and kills Gordone's girl while stabbing her with a knife and calling out his “Too Sweet” name), but that is dropped as the villain becomes as comical as his sidekicks. Look for the scene where he smears potato salad on his girlfriend’s face and then lustfully licks it off. Also look for Rudy Ray Moore in a cameo and Tony Cox as a gambling con who propositions ladies from under the ring. The worst thing is the boxing matches are terrible. Now I’m not expecting a ROCKY style fight here, but these guys look 3 weight classes apart, swing wildly and puke up gallons of blood when getting beaten down. To the film’s credit, it may be inept and chaotic, but it is never boring.
Fanaka: “So we have this prison boxing sequel…”
Globus: “Okay, here’s a check for $3 million.”
Golan: “Where the hell are the sandwiches we ordered?”
This sequel wastes little time setting up the plot as “Too Sweet” Gordone is boxing his friend El Cid in what appears to be a small conference room with, again, 75 spectators. Unbeknownst to our champ, someone slips a drug called valadine (?) into his water and he goes nutzo, killing his buddy in the ring. Naturally, he gets sent up the river for three years (again, no court room scene) and heads to the pen in a paddy wagon with a prisoner kid playing a saxophone. Jesus, what is with the saxophones, Jamaa? Anyway, the sax player, a white kid named Roscoe (Steve Antin), recognizes “Too Sweet” and informs him that, wouldn’t you know it, a big boxing tournament is coming up in the prison they are heading to. Yeah, it is one of those kinds of movies.
|SAW: THE EARLY YEARS?|
because I love the sugar cane” WHAT?) that he doesn’t know Roscoe’s fight has been moved up. Roscoe takes a hellacious beating by one of Serenghetti’s men (Danny Trejo) hopped up on that super juice. When Gordone sees what has happened, he can do the only thing he knows to rectify this situation. That’s right – he challenges Serenghetti’s top man, Hugo (the deliciously named Magic Schwarz), to a fight. And not just any old fight, this is going to be a no holds barred fight! “Too Sweet” then gets the unlikeliest ally in…THE MIDNIGHT THUD! Thud, whose real name is Jessup, decides “crack is whack” and sobers up to start training “Too Sweet” for his revenge match (no joke, Thud’s teeth go from rotten green to pearly white in one scene during his transformation from crackhead to sensei). He teaches “Too Sweet” that it is all about “Guts! Guts! Guts! Guts!” and, of course, he whoops dat ass in the finale. And he better win given the shorts he chooses to wear in the final fight (see right).
|"Too Sweet" died for our sins|