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  Penitentiary Prison PurgatoryBuy this film here.
Year: 1979
Director: Jamaa Fanaka
Stars: Leon Isaac Kennedy, Donovan Womack, Thommy Pollard, Badja Djola, Chuck Mitchell, Floyd 'Wildcat' Chatman, Hazel Spears, Wilbur 'Hi-Fi' White, Will Richardson, Dwaine Fobbs, Ernest Wilson, Cepheus Jaxon, Gloria Delaney, Ellsworth Harrell, Carl Irwin
Genre: Drama, Action, Thriller
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Martel Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy), known as Too Sweet, has been drifting through the California countryside, sleeping rough when one morning he is awoken by the sound of two bikers revving their engines around his makeshift bed. He rouses himself, braced for trouble, when they roar off and Too Sweet begins his hitchhiking routine, as luck would have it getting picked up by a young lady (Hazel Spears) who offers him a fun time in the back of her van. However, they are interrupted by her CB radio which tells her to head over to a diner for a job - a fateful moment.

That's because at that diner are the two bikers, and when they start getting violent with her Too Sweet steps in and ends up knocked out and framed for murder. Not the best start to the day, but a notable one for an example of the most outrageous prison trilogy in exploitation cinema, the writer and director Jamaa Fanaka's Penitentiary series, which started as a movie he made while at film school, as his previous cult hit Welcome Home Brother Charles had been, both so unusual and memorable in their execution that they secured cinema releases. There was no doubting Fanaka had talent, and in his way vision, but he never really escaped them.

Being an African-American filmmaker, he was one of the few to actually make what would be termed blaxploitation in the seventies, though he was more active in the eighties, making him part of the second wave of these, after the novelty had worn off in the mid-seventies, but started to get their second wind nearer the end of the decade and into the eighties. This first instalment in what would define his career was more of a gritty investigation into the unpleasant underbelly of prison life, as if he were broadcasting a terrible warning to whoever might be thinking of breaking the law: if you end up in a place like this, you may not survive because they're Hell on Earth even if you are prepared.

For Too Sweet, he has the advantage of his fighting skills to keep him alive, and when the authorities, led by the tough but fair Lieutenant Arnsworth (Chuck Mitchell who unmistakably played the title character in Porky's later), note he has the ability to box, they recruit him to the prison team, though not before we are treated, if that's the word, to Kennedy and his cellmate Half Dead (Badja Djola) fighting each other to exhaustion when the latter tries to make Too Sweet his personal bitch. This sequence goes on for an incredibly protracted amount of time, but is crowdpleasing enough to have you understand why Fanaka included it at this length, for it also summed up his hero's struggle against a corrupt system which had landed him there in the first place.

But there is more bizarre business to come, most notoriously with those boxing matches which are staged by intercutting between the punches and a sex scene occurring at the same time. The women's jail is invited to watch the entertainment, and more than once do a few of them excuse themselves to have sex in the toilets with selected male inmates, pretty nasty but oddly humorous as well. It was possible to laugh at some of this, no matter how sincere Fanaka was in his message of injustice and his cautionary tale, as for a start there was material here which could only be a joke, such as the boxer who gets knocked out and hallucinates his opponent in ladies' underwear (and the boxing gloves), or the poleaxed referee immediately getting up to start fighting the man who hit him. In spite of all this, there is a positive nature to Penitentiary in that survival is victory in itself, and while many prefer the sequels, this was a solid, occasionally absurd, effort.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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