What five fingers can't get done, don't get done.
Jamaa Fanaka's Penitentiary trilogy feels like a slow-motion peek at what happens to a serious filmmaker over a decade as a deficit of critical success is salved by the cheap and immediate gratification of exploitation.
Dir.: Jamaa Fanaka
Ranked: #2558 (41.01%)
Although the first movie in the Penitentiary franchise indulges in some slurpy gratuitous sex scenes (in a gross bathroom, no less), you can see in the rest of the film the intent of the Fanaka who came through the L.A.-based counter-culture film movement that produced indie darlings Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust). Leon Isaac Kennedy stars as Martel "Too Sweet" Gordone, a wrongly imprisoned convict who would prefer to keep to himself, but is forced to fight a system in which rape is only one of the constant threats against individual integrity. Built around a Z-movie narrative involving an inmate boxing tournament and revenge, Penitentiary tackles the concept of psychological slavery; even within the walls of a prison, Too Sweet demands a degree of personal liberty at-odds with an entrenched culture of subjugation. Interestingly, Fanaka rarely if ever suggests systematic racism on the part of prison guards or administrators; the threats in Penitentiary come from fellow prisoners, who are recreating inside a sort of mirror of historical wrongs.
Lest it sound too cerebral, the first Penitentiary movie also includes some mildly unhinged performances (although pretty tame compared to its successors), some terribly choreographed boxing action (which makes Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots look tactically sophisticated), a sappy folk-ish love ballad, and more than a few low budget-native editing choices that are difficult to justify. But there's an electricity to Penitentiary that comes from the combination of those rough skid row-filmmaking edges and Fanaka's loose, almost slapdash sense of place: as wild, absurd and exaggerated as it sometime seems, this prison feels authentic in its own way, with a frank acceptance of homosexuality, a real sense of weariness to Kennedy's performance, especially in the climactic fight, and an effective tinge of poignancy to the scenes between Kennedy and Floyd Chatman as his aging inmate trainer, "Seldom Seen."
Fun credit: Wilbur "Hi-Fi" White, who is "introduced" as a jibe-slinging drag queen, also catered the production.
Penitentiary II (1982)
Dir.: Jamaa Fanaka
Ranked: #2236 (48.44%)
Hints of social relevance are jettisoned almost immediately in Jamaa Fanaka's first sequel to the deceptively complicated 1979 prison boxing movie Penitentiary, as an absurdly long and rambling back story is stuffed into a Star Wars-style crawl to bridge the gap between movies. Following this sequence, superimposed over a 3-minute long freeze-frame of a front door, Fanaka jumps into a world pulsating with roller boogie, poop jokes, and Mr. T wearing genie pants while holding a smoking lamp.
There's little in the way of prison, despite the inapt title: "Too Sweet" (Leon Isaac Kennedy) faces a violation of his parole unless he competes in a boxing tournament that will face him up against his old cellblock nemesis; meanwhile a hateful former cellmate (re-cast with Ernie Hudson, who fights Mr. T while wearing a rainbow wig, because... there's no reason) gives "Too Sweet" an urgent cause for revenge.
There's a lot to not like about Penitentiary II: without the confines of prison, its narrative is sprawling, many shots and scenes go on far too long, a rape-murder is half-played for laughs, that same terrible love ballad from the first film returns for a painful moment, the role of "Seldom Seen" (oddly cited on IMDb as "Seldom Seems") is re-cast with the less-effective Malik Carter, everything is unequivocally sillier, and I might never eat potato salad ever again.
Yet, there's a weird "bad movie" charm to dialog like "Give me a couple of hygienic minutes," and that saxophone player in the crowd during fight scenes, or Dennis Lipscomb as a schticky play-by-play radio announcer who at first seems to be given far too much screen time but by the end is nearly the best thing in the movie, or Bad Santa's Tony Cox in a repetitive subplot with no resolution, or the completely unearned and doubly preposterous climactic reversal-of-fortune. And I'm almost positive that, for one shot, a child actor is replaced with a disturbing and incongruously expensive-looking puppet.
And then there's the legitimately good stuff: like the performances that work overtime to sell a lot of unconvincing boxing, and how the 20-minutes-too-long of Penitentiary II are spent on character development, and how, in a flash of Fanaka's social consciousness, the usual U.S. national anthem is replaced with "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
Fun credit: Rudy Ray Moore was in this?
Penitentiary III (1987)
Dir.: Jamaa Fanaka
Ranked: #2758 (36.42%)
So, Penitentiary III features a character named "The Midnight Thud." He's a growling and howling Haitian dwarf who lives in a prison dungeon, sated with drugs and porn, released only when a new inmate needs to be raped. How funny you find this concept might determine your tolerance for Jamaa Fanaka's final chapter in this increasingly pointless franchise.
Leon Isaac Kennedy returns as "Too Sweet" Gordone, thrown back in the slammer and once again enters a boxing tournament, this time at-odds with a reclusive inmate kingpin played by General Hospital's Anthony Geary. Even though it features an inattention to narrative details that is sometimes endearing in exploitation movies, the grimy and sadistic tone to much of Penitentiary III is dispiriting. But those stubborn enough to make it past that first Midnight Thud scene will find an insanely abrupt attempt to reverse that bizarre plot thread followed by some completely unearned Christian imagery. This one's a real mess, but a little bit of fun for those who can stomach its wrong turns.
Fun credits: Features two actors who appeared that same year as arm wrestlers in Sly Stallone's Over the Top; Danny Trejo appears as a prison boxer, putting this possibly in the same universe as Runaway Train.