Transmissions to Earth Presents:
Review by L.L. Soares
Since its release in 1979, Jamaa Fanaka’s PENITENTIARY, has becomes something of a classic among prison movies, Blaxploitation cinema, and just for being a bonafide cult classic. Not as graphic as the HBO series OZ, which would come after (from 1997-2003), but certainly an inspiration for it, I’m sure that PENITENTIARY was shocking in its time for its frankness and brutality.
It tells the story of Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy), a quiet young guy, and sort of a lost soul, who’s hitchhiking across America. It’s not really clear where he’s going—he doesn’t seem to have a destination in mind—and when we first see him, he’s sleeping under a home-made tent off of a desolate stretch of highway. He’s woken up when two idiots on motor bikes, who are riding around the area, see his temporary shelter, and purposely drive around him to wake him up. After they leave, he packs up his stuff and gets back on the road with his thumb out. It doesn’t take long for a pretty girl in a van named Linda (Hazel Spears) to pick him up.
She explains to our hero that this isn’t the kind of area where people usually pick up hitchhikers, since there are two prisons nearby. She suggests they go in the back of her van for some “rolling around,” but she gets a call on her CB radio (remember when those were a craze in the 70s?) telling her to meet some customers at a nearby diner. So much for the invitation for sex; business comes first. Too Sweet tags along in what seems to be a drug deal.
In the diner, we see the same two idiots who woke Too Sweet up with their bikes, who turn out to be Linda’s customers, but things get ugly fast, as they make racist and misogynist comments to Linda and her “friend,” which turns physical when the two customers attack Linda. Too Sweet tries to protect her, and ends up getting knocked out with a bottle for his trouble. When he wakes up, he’s thrown in jail for a murder he didn’t commit.
After six months in the county jail, Too Sweet ends up in the Penitentiary of the title (presumably one of the prisons Linda mentioned when they first met). It becomes evident real fast that in this cell block, you’re either a boss or someone’s bitch. But Too Sweet isn’t too happy with that arrangement and refuses to play by the “rules.”
When his cellmate, “Half-Dead” Johnson (Badja Djola), looking mean and missing some teeth, is told to “turn out” his new roommate, Half-Dead takes the job seriously, except Too Sweet didn’t get the memo saying he had to go along with it. What results is a long, brutal sequence where Too Sweet and Half-Dead battle it out in their cell. At first, it looks like Half-Dead has the upper hand, but Too Sweet fights back like a bear, and when the battle finally ends, it leaves both men bloody.
In the prison yard, Too Sweet tries to befriend another quiet guy who was victimized by his cellmate, named Eugene (Thommy Pollard), but Eugene is scared to be seen with him once his cellmate Jesse Amos (Donovan Womack) shows up. There’s instant antagonism between the bully Jesse and our man Too Sweet, which ends in fisticuffs and threats of murder. The guards break it up and throw them both in the hole.
When they get out, both men are offered deals to be part of a big prison boxing tournament being run by the man in charge, Lieutenant Arnsworth (I’m not sure if he was the head guard or the warden, but we never do see a warden). Considering he’s the authority figure here, Arnsworth seems somewhat benevolent and tries to be fair, although he definitely has ulterior motives. Clearly the boxing matches are a betting sport, and Arnsworth’s brother-in-law, Sam Cunningham (Carl Irwin), chooses fighters who can box outside of prison when they get out, even having some pull with the parole board.
At first, Too Sweet isn’t too eager to box (“I fight to defend myself. I don’t box.”), but it offers a chance to get out of this place, and he’s making enemies fast, so he agrees to go along with it. The Lieutenant gives Too Sweet a new cellmate in the way of Hezzikia Jackson (Floyd Chatman), who goes by the moniker “Seldom Seen.” Jackson is an older guy with a beard (who reminded me a bit of Redd Foxx), who trains fighters, and he immediately starts getting Too Sweet ready for his bout. Eugene joins the boxing team, too, desperate for a chance at some self-defense and self-respect.
Meanwhile, Too Sweet’s arch-rival Jesse plans to put our hero’s lights out for good, given time.
With names like Lying Latney Winborn, Magilla Gorilla, and Wolf, the other boxers are a mix of good guys and (mostly) despicable ones. They’re cheered on by Sweet Pea (Wilbur “Hi-Fi” White) and “her girls.” When the big fight happens, the Lieutenant even has some real women brought over from the nearby women’s prison to cheer the fighters on and offer some motivation (“connubial visits” go to the boxers who win their fights). While the boxing is going on, there are even some shenanigans in the restrooms between male and female convicts.
Too Sweet gives it his all as he tries to fight his way out of prison, and even gets a chance to see Linda again (the lady who started it all).
Some of it seems dated now, but overall, PENITENTIARY holds up pretty well, and has enough menace left in it to keep things (mostly) serious. These are men who fight, bleed, and sometimes die.
Director Jamaa Fanaka went on to direct two sequels, PENITENTIARY II (1982) and PENITENTIARY III (1987), both with Leon Isaac Kennedy back as Too Sweet. Fanaka’s last movie was the drug war flick STREET WARS in 1992. Fanaka also previously directed the notorious Blaxploitation horror movie, WELCOME HOME BROTHER CHARLES (1975, aka SOUL VENGEANCE), about a convict who is experimented on in prison and becomes a killer who murders with his penis (seriously!).
Kennedy went on to star (and write the screenplay for) the boxing movie BODY AND SOUL in 1981, but mostly became a supporting player in movies like the Chuck Norris v. David Carradine actioner LONE WOLF MCQUADE (1983), TOO SCARED TO SCREAM (1985), starring Mike Connors from the TV show MANNIX, and HOLLYWOOD VICE SQUAD (1986). His last role was on an episode of the TV series AGAINST THE LAW (1991), but there are rumors he might return to acting for a movie called THE SILENT TYPE.
Supporting actor Chuck Mitchell, as Lieutenant Arnsworth, would go on to be the infamous casino owner Porky in the 80s franchise of PORKY’S sex comedies (starting with 1981’s PORKY’S), and Badja Djola, as Too Sweet’s brutal first cellmate Half-Dead, would go on to have probably the longest career of his castmates, appearing in such movies as THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988), MISSISSIPPI BURNING (1988), THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991), and HEAVEN’S PRISONERS (1996).
If you’re a fan of Blaxploitation cinema of the 70s, or prison movies on the whole, you’ve gotta check this one out. And tell ‘em Too Sweet sent ya.
© Copyright 2017 by L.L. Soares
This has been a “Transmission to Earth.“