Sunday, July 3, 2011

Penitentiary (1979)


Penitentiary is a poorly made prison picture rife with some of the most demeaning African-American stereotypes ever put on film. Writer-producer-director Jamaa Fanaka tells the story of Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy), a drifter who gets into a brawl protecting a prostitute (Hazel Spears) from a pair of crazed bikers. Gordone’s infraction lands him in a nearly all-black prison, where the opportunistic white warden (Chuck Mitchell) arranges boxing matches so his brother, a fight promoter, can find new talent. Inexplicably, nearly an hour of the 99-minute movie elapses before Gordone steps into the ring for the first time; the picture lingers on interminable scenes of attempted prison rape, illicit sex with visiting inmates from the neighboring female prison, and general prison debauchery. Instead of character development, explorations of big-house psychology, or even just plain old action or suspense, the picture is an amateurish fetish film, with endless shots of sweaty black men, vignettes of fevered carnality, and ultraviolent fistfights, all of which perpetuate ugly clich├ęs about African-Americans as animals; if there was some higher purpose being pursued, it’s not perceptible. Weirdly, given the picture’s rote approach, Fanaka avoids the usual blaxploitation contrivance of establishing whites as an oppressive force, because Gordone’s imprisonment is justified and the warden treats him fairly. As a result, the movie inadvertently comes across as an indictment of brother-on-brother debasement. Just about the only redeeming quality of the picture is the presence of a character naned Hezzikia “Seldom Seen” Jackson (Floyd Chatman), an aging inmate who delivers a provocative speech about what it’s like to be “institutionalized” after spending most of his life behind bars. Grotesque, lurid, and sloppy, Penitentiary nonetheless did enough business to spawn two ’80s sequels and to elongate former radio DJ Kennedy’s brief and unremarkable screen career.

Penitentiary: LAME

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