Monday, February 25, 2013

Deceased Artiste filmmakers with unforgettable first names, part 1: Jamaa Fanaka

I started to assemble these three blog entries last night while watching the orgy of self-congratulation that is the Oscars. I knew that the first two of these gentlemen — who all died in 2012 — would not be included in the show’s necrology, and that the third would be in there (he got the customary three-four seconds). I wanted to celebrate them because their work is memorable, entertaining, (in the first two cases) “incredibly strange,” and (in the last) extremely touching. And, besides that, all three gents had very unusual first names.

Born Walter Gordon, the awesomely-monikered Jamaa Fanaka moved from Jackson, Mississippi to L.A. as a kid. After serving in the Air Force, he attended the University of California film school where he became part of “the L.A. Rebellion,” a group of young African-American film-school grads who rejected blaxploitation. Other members of the group included Julie Dash and the sublimely talented Charles Burnett.

He made a much-heralded short (“A Day in the Life of Willie Faust”) and three feature films while still in school: Emma Mae (aka "Black Sister's Revenge," 1974), Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975), and his giant hit Penitentiary (1979) with Leon Isaac Kennedy. The last-mentioned was indeed a major success and is deemed a turning point in African-American independent cinema. It also fulfilled a lot of the functions of exploitation cinema — violence, sex, and a macho star who goes through a grueling journey in the film’s plot line (participating in boxing matches to get out of a maximum security prison).

Fanaka’s filmography is quite brief (six features), a phenomenon he blamed on the Director’s Guild of America, against whom he brought class-action lawsuits in the early ‘90s, alleging that the group was discriminatory. According to his obits, the lawsuits became a “mission” of sorts for Fanaka, whose career did ultimately suffer, but who drew attention to an important problem in the process.

I haven’t seen Penitentiary in many years now, and never saw Penitentiary II, but the third film in the series, Penitentiary III (1987) is the one I’ve paid tribute to on in print, on the Funhouse TV show, and now here. It is definitely an exploitation feature and is quite a strange one: it finds Leon Isaac back in prison, being persuaded to box again by a sneering drag-queen ganglord, played by soap-opera king Tony Geary.

The movies continues to stun as it moves on, as we find that Geary has a cellmate/servant/lover named Cleopatra, played by drag queen Jim Bailey. The piece de resistance comes when we are introduced to the device by which Geary intends to “humble” Leon Isaac, someone called “the Midnight Thud.” The Thud is a grunting, mohawk-sporting midget (wrestler the Haiti Kid) who “takes the manhood” of people that have infuriated Geary.

The fact that the Midnight Thud goes on to become Kennedy’s manager in the final fight (we learn that the Thud talks pretty late in the picture), and that Fanaka includes some jaw-dropping Christ imagery in said no-rules brawl only serve to make the pot sweeter. Below is a short montage of a few clips from the film that I put together for the show back in late ’97. Feast, or the Thud will come get ya!

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