Penitentiary


1h 39m 1980
Penitentiary

Brief Synopsis

A man wrongly convicted of murder enters the prison boxing tournament.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Action
Release Date
1980
Production Company
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 39m
Color
Color

Synopsis

Too Sweet is picked up by a prostitute while he is hitchhiking through the desert in California. When they stop at a diner, the couple are harassed by a motorcycle gang and in the fight that results, one of the gang is killed. Too Sweet is wrongly accused of the murder, convicted and jailed. The prison inmates are ruled by Jesse, and Too Sweet shares a cell with one of Jesse's henchmen, the deranged Half Dead. Although Too Sweet hates violence, he has to fight to defend himself. In fact, Too Sweet is a good fighter and he is talked into competing in the prison boxing tournament. But he soon realizes that the contest is rigged when he learns that Half Dead is his opponent.

Cast

Leon Isaac Kennedy

Martel "Too Sweet" Gordone

Thommy Pollard

Eugene T Lawson

Hazel Spears

Linda

Donovan Womack

Jesse Amos

Floyd Chatman

Hezzikia "Seldom Seen" Jackson

Wilbur White

Sweet Pea

Gloria Delaney

Peaches

Badja Djola

"Half-Dead" Johnson

Chuck Mitchell

Lieutenant Arnsworth

Cepheus Jaxon

Poindexter

Dwaine Fobbs

"Lying" Latney Winborn

Ernest Wilson

Will Richardson

Magilla Gorilla

Elijah Mitchell

1st Nut

Tony Andrea

Moon

Darrell Harris

2nd Nut

Lonnie Kirtz

3rd Nut

Ray Wolfe

"A" Block Night Guard

Charles Young

Ellsworth Harrell

Referee

Cornelius Desha

"Tough Tony"--Manager And Referee

Michael Melvin

1st Biker

Steve Eddy

2nd Biker

Irene Stokes

Female Guard In Male Prison

Bill Murry

"Rappin" Larry

Terri Hayden

Counter Lady

Herman Cole

Cook

Carl Erwin

Sam Cunningham

Irving Parham

"A" Block Day Guard

Warren Bryant

Gay Boxing Spectator

Lorri Gay

2nd Girl In Restroom

Joaquin Leal

Rubin

David Carter

Male Guard

Hassan Abdul-ali

Male Guard

Marcus Guttierrez

Male Guard

Zee Howard

Female Lieutenant

Gwynn Pineda

Female Guard

Ann Hutcherson

Female Guard

Cardella Demilo

Female Guard

Beverly Wallace

Female Guard

Onia Fenee

Female Guard

Deloris Figueroa

Female Guard

Zeola Gaye

Female Inmate

Jackie Shaw

Female Inmate

Brenda Joy Griffin

Female Inmate

Renee Armanlin

Female Inmate

Sarah Jaxon

Female Inmate

Barbara Torres

Female Inmate

Irene Terrell

Female Inmate

Lisa Visco

Female Inmate

Shelli Hughes

Female Inmate

Tony Rapisarda

Male Inmate

Casey J Littlejohn

Male Inmate

Edgardo Williams

Male Inmate

Tyrone S B Thompson

Male Inmate

Sam Olden

Male Inmate

Roderick Williams

Male Inmate

Dominic Gusto

Male Inmate

William Bey

Male Inmate

Shawn Davis

Male Inmate

Johnny Jones

Male Inmate

Robert Wayne Cornelius

Male Inmate

Quitman Gates

Male Inmate

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Action
Release Date
1980
Production Company
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 39m
Color
Color

Articles

Penitentiary


Forgive the pun, but there's no shortage of arresting imagery on hand in Jamaa Fanaka's Penitentiary (1979), from the sight of a bugged-out prison inmate strutting along the cellblock with a lit cigarette stuck in his ear to a boxer standing triumphant above his opponent in a curly wig and black bra; perhaps the strangest image in the entire film is that of black actor Leon Isaac Kennedy standing up from a makeshift lean-to in the wide open space of the Southern California desert. Even thirty years later, moviegoers are unaccustomed to seeing black actors, whom Hollywood has coded for urban environments, in a setting reminiscent of John Ford, particularly The Grapes of Wrath (1940). As drifter Martel "Too Sweet" Cordone, Kennedy certainly has the lean and hungry look of Tom Joad and does find himself in a Joadian pickle when he defends a roadside prostitute (Hazel Spears) against the bullying of a pair of motorcyclists and is thrown into prison for his gallantry. While the setup is familiar to the point of being over-familiar (Robert Aldrich's The Longest Yard [1974] comes immediately to mind), Fanaka's mostly all-black cast makes the material feel fresh and immediate. By the end of the 1970s, the racial demographic of the US prison system found black inmates outnumbering Caucasians but prison movies continued to center around white inmates (Tom Gries' excellent 1972 made-for-TV movie The Glass House) or surround their black star with a supporting cast comprised for the most part of white actors (Buzz Kulik's 1969 Riot). Penitentiary flipped that script.

Born Walter Gordon in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1942, the future filmmaker changed his name to Jamaa Fanaka (Swahili words meaning "togetherness" and "success") while a student at UCLA so that moviegoers would know he was black. Despite obvious pride in his African heritage, Fanaka was then and remains to this day a fan of classic Hollywood films. Two of Fanaka's favorite movies are the original King Kong (1933) and William Wyler's remake of Ben-Hur (1959), and the shadow of both films can be seen to touch Penitentiary. The film marked the end of Fanaka's UCLA academic curricula, following the experimental-style Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975) and the more naturalistic Emma Mae (1976). Fanaka showed drafts of his script to prisoners on Terminal Island, a low security corrections facility off the coast of Los Angeles. For the boxing scenes, he drew from his experiences in the United States Air Force, where time in the ring allowed enlisted men to escape the grind of kitchen patrol.

Fanaka had written the role of the wronged and righteous Martel "Too Sweet" Cordone for Glynn Turman, the rising star of Michael Schultz's Cooley High (1975), but was forced to reconsider when Turman eloped with singer Aretha Franklin close to the start of principal photography. Already signed onto the project as an associate producer, Leon Isaac Kennedy threw his own hat into the ring via a videotape of himself acting the Too Sweet role (with his sportscaster wife, Jayne Kennedy, reading lines opposite him off-camera). Suitably impressed, Fanaka gave the first-time actor a shot.

Filming of Penitentiary took place in Los Angeles County's dusty Antelope Valley and (for the prison scenes) in the long-shuttered Lincoln Heights Jail. (Built in 1931 and closed shortly after the Watts Riots in 1965, the facility remains a popular filming location, whose boiler room was used as Freddy Kruger's lair in Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984.) Even supplemented with government funding and a hefty chunk of Fanaka's parents' savings, the budget ran thin near the end of production, leaving the writer-director unable to feed his large cast and dozens of extras. Taking the initiative, bit player Wilbur "Hi-Fi" White (cast as the gap-toothed transvestite Sweet Pea) collected food stamps from cast and crew and became the production's official caterer, feeding over one hundred actors and technical staffers for the final week of shooting.

Made marketable by the success of Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979), Penitentiary wound up being the most successful independent feature of 1980. Two sequels followed, both contriving to bring Leon Isaac Kennedy back to prison and into the ring for more abuse. The sequels notwithstanding, it's tempting to remember Too Sweet as he is during Penitentiary's final frames: paroled and headed down a long stretch of desert highway pointed towards blue sky, snowcapped mountains and the unfinished business of claiming his share of the American dream.

Producer: Jamaa Fanaka
Director: Jamaa Fanaka
Screenplay: Jamaa Fanaka
Cinematography: Marty Ollstein
Art Direction: Adel Mazen
Music: Frankie Gaye
Film Editing: Betsy Blankett
Cast: Leon Isaac Kennedy (Martel 'Too Sweet' Cordone), Thommy Pollard (Eugene T. Lawson), Hazel Spear (Linda), Donovan Womack (Jesse Amos), Floyd 'Wildcat' Chatman (Seldon Seen Jackson), Gloria Delaney (Peaches), Ian Foxx (Pretty Red), Badja Djola ("Half-Dead" Johnson).
C-99m. Letterboxed.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Interview with Jamaa Fanaka by Millie De Chirico, www.tcm.com
Interview with Jamaa Fanaka by Suzanne Donahue, www.associatedcontent.com
Interview with Jamaa Fanaka by Michael Guillen, http://theeveningclass.blogspot.com
Penitentiary

Penitentiary

Forgive the pun, but there's no shortage of arresting imagery on hand in Jamaa Fanaka's Penitentiary (1979), from the sight of a bugged-out prison inmate strutting along the cellblock with a lit cigarette stuck in his ear to a boxer standing triumphant above his opponent in a curly wig and black bra; perhaps the strangest image in the entire film is that of black actor Leon Isaac Kennedy standing up from a makeshift lean-to in the wide open space of the Southern California desert. Even thirty years later, moviegoers are unaccustomed to seeing black actors, whom Hollywood has coded for urban environments, in a setting reminiscent of John Ford, particularly The Grapes of Wrath (1940). As drifter Martel "Too Sweet" Cordone, Kennedy certainly has the lean and hungry look of Tom Joad and does find himself in a Joadian pickle when he defends a roadside prostitute (Hazel Spears) against the bullying of a pair of motorcyclists and is thrown into prison for his gallantry. While the setup is familiar to the point of being over-familiar (Robert Aldrich's The Longest Yard [1974] comes immediately to mind), Fanaka's mostly all-black cast makes the material feel fresh and immediate. By the end of the 1970s, the racial demographic of the US prison system found black inmates outnumbering Caucasians but prison movies continued to center around white inmates (Tom Gries' excellent 1972 made-for-TV movie The Glass House) or surround their black star with a supporting cast comprised for the most part of white actors (Buzz Kulik's 1969 Riot). Penitentiary flipped that script. Born Walter Gordon in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1942, the future filmmaker changed his name to Jamaa Fanaka (Swahili words meaning "togetherness" and "success") while a student at UCLA so that moviegoers would know he was black. Despite obvious pride in his African heritage, Fanaka was then and remains to this day a fan of classic Hollywood films. Two of Fanaka's favorite movies are the original King Kong (1933) and William Wyler's remake of Ben-Hur (1959), and the shadow of both films can be seen to touch Penitentiary. The film marked the end of Fanaka's UCLA academic curricula, following the experimental-style Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975) and the more naturalistic Emma Mae (1976). Fanaka showed drafts of his script to prisoners on Terminal Island, a low security corrections facility off the coast of Los Angeles. For the boxing scenes, he drew from his experiences in the United States Air Force, where time in the ring allowed enlisted men to escape the grind of kitchen patrol. Fanaka had written the role of the wronged and righteous Martel "Too Sweet" Cordone for Glynn Turman, the rising star of Michael Schultz's Cooley High (1975), but was forced to reconsider when Turman eloped with singer Aretha Franklin close to the start of principal photography. Already signed onto the project as an associate producer, Leon Isaac Kennedy threw his own hat into the ring via a videotape of himself acting the Too Sweet role (with his sportscaster wife, Jayne Kennedy, reading lines opposite him off-camera). Suitably impressed, Fanaka gave the first-time actor a shot. Filming of Penitentiary took place in Los Angeles County's dusty Antelope Valley and (for the prison scenes) in the long-shuttered Lincoln Heights Jail. (Built in 1931 and closed shortly after the Watts Riots in 1965, the facility remains a popular filming location, whose boiler room was used as Freddy Kruger's lair in Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984.) Even supplemented with government funding and a hefty chunk of Fanaka's parents' savings, the budget ran thin near the end of production, leaving the writer-director unable to feed his large cast and dozens of extras. Taking the initiative, bit player Wilbur "Hi-Fi" White (cast as the gap-toothed transvestite Sweet Pea) collected food stamps from cast and crew and became the production's official caterer, feeding over one hundred actors and technical staffers for the final week of shooting. Made marketable by the success of Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979), Penitentiary wound up being the most successful independent feature of 1980. Two sequels followed, both contriving to bring Leon Isaac Kennedy back to prison and into the ring for more abuse. The sequels notwithstanding, it's tempting to remember Too Sweet as he is during Penitentiary's final frames: paroled and headed down a long stretch of desert highway pointed towards blue sky, snowcapped mountains and the unfinished business of claiming his share of the American dream. Producer: Jamaa Fanaka Director: Jamaa Fanaka Screenplay: Jamaa Fanaka Cinematography: Marty Ollstein Art Direction: Adel Mazen Music: Frankie Gaye Film Editing: Betsy Blankett Cast: Leon Isaac Kennedy (Martel 'Too Sweet' Cordone), Thommy Pollard (Eugene T. Lawson), Hazel Spear (Linda), Donovan Womack (Jesse Amos), Floyd 'Wildcat' Chatman (Seldon Seen Jackson), Gloria Delaney (Peaches), Ian Foxx (Pretty Red), Badja Djola ("Half-Dead" Johnson). C-99m. Letterboxed. by Richard Harland Smith Sources: Interview with Jamaa Fanaka by Millie De Chirico, www.tcm.com Interview with Jamaa Fanaka by Suzanne Donahue, www.associatedcontent.com Interview with Jamaa Fanaka by Michael Guillen, http://theeveningclass.blogspot.com

Quotes

Trivia

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1980

Released in United States on Video August 30, 1988

Released in United States April 1991

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1980

Released in United States on Video August 30, 1988

Released in United States April 1991 (Shown at AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival (U.S.A. Independent Black Cinema-Jamaa Fanaka Tribute) April 11-25, 1991.)