Before drowning in the muck of ultraviolent exploitation pictures, independent filmmaker Jamaa Fanaka made this flawed but worthwhile melodrama about a young black woman who moves from the country to the big city and learns tough lessons about men, police brutality, and racism. A prime example of the “L.A. Rebellion” movement sparked by African-American directors who seized the means of production in order to ensure that stories about black life were told honestly—instead of through Hollywood’s reductive prism—Emma Mae features naturalistic acting by a no-name cast, real locations, and semi-documentary vignettes of Compton circa the mid-’70s. Although Fanaka’s weakest contributions manifest in the area of screenwriting, seeing as how Emma Mae spends most of its running time searching for a story, the filmmaker’s alternately compassionate and indignant perspective leads him to capture many things that feel relevant and true.
The movie begins with recently orphaned teenager Emma Mae (Jerri Hayes) arriving in Los Angeles to stay with members of her extended family. At first, her young cousins resist the notion of a new peer in their household. Emma Mae quickly proves her mettle, however, by standing up to a male bully in a physical fight. She also evinces stronger sensitivity to social codes than her relatives expected, for instance recognizing that she shouldn’t tag along to a house party and drag down everyone else’s fun by becoming a fifth wheel. Eventually, Emma Mae becomes romantically involved with a young man named Jesse (Ernest Williams III), who makes his living as a small-time drug dealer. When he’s arrested and thrown in jail, Emma Mae stands by her man, organizing friends and relatives to work at a car wash in order to raise bail money. When the cash Emma Mae earns at the car wash proves insufficient, she takes even more drastic measures, only to get slapped in the face by harsh realities.
Fanaka lets the story meander at regular intervals, lingering on peripheral scenes such as a sexy young woman belly-dancing to attract car-wash customers, and some of Fanaka’s narrative choices are downright random, notably the vignette of Emma Mae’s clothes catching on fire during a party. Additionally, there’s only so much any filmmaker can accomplish with amateurish actors and dodgy technical execution. Nonetheless, Emma Mae—which is occasionally marketed under the ridiculous alternate title Black Sister’s Revenge—is worlds away from the ugly trash with which Fanaka is normally associated, particularly the vile Penitentiary (1979) and its sequels.
Emma Mae: FUNKY