PENITENTIARY (1979) Blu-ray/DVD Combo
Director: Jamaa Fanaka
Vinegar Syndrome

Vinegar Syndrome busts out of PENITENTIARY with a new 4K restoration on Blu-ray/DVD combo.

When drifter Martel "Too Sweet" Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy, CHEERLEADERS WILD WEEKEND) comes to the rescue of mobile hooker Linda (Hazel Spears, DISCO GODFATHER), he gets into a brawl with some bikers while defending her honor, leaving one of them dead and Martel to take the blame. Six months later, he is sentenced and sent to the penitentiary. His cellmate 'Half Dead' Johnson (Badja Djola, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW) tries to "break him in" but Gordone proves to be just as dirty a fighter. Gordone makes another enemy in Jesse Amos (Donovan Womack, SECRET AGENT OO SOUL) when he advises Amos' "property" Eugene (Thommy Pollard) to fight back against his treatment. The ensuing fight between Amos and Gordone results in fourteen days in solitude for both men. When they get out, boxing coach Jesse learns that Hezzikia 'Seldom Seen' Jackson (Floyd 'Wildcat' Chatman, GETTING OVER) – who has been in prison for nearly thirty-five years – has taken over the training of the boxers and wants Gordone to join. Lieutenant Arnsworth (Chuck Mitchell, DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE) informs them that his fight scouter brother-in-law Sam (Carl Irwin, THE PACK) is also on the parole board can swing them parole if they prove to be good fighters. Amos is less pleased to learn that Eugene has also joined the boxing team looking to reclaim his masculinity. The dynamic changes between Amos and Eugene, and Amos goes from wanting to beat Gordone to wanting to kill him. When a shiv attack goes fatally wrong, Gordone is eager to face off with Amos in the ring.

Although he was still in the master's program at UCLA's film school, PENITENTIARY was actually the third theatrical feature of writer/producer/director Jamaa Fanaka – the fourth counting the feature he undertook as his master's project when others were doing shorts – following WELCOME HOME, BROTHER CHARLES (aka SOUL VENGEANCE) and EMMA MAE (aka BLACK SISTER'S REVENGE) and could be regarded as the one of the few Blaxploitation films that was federally funded; although the label of Blaxploitation is debatable since academics – including Fanakaa's colleagues – have identified it as part of the L.A. Rebellion or the "Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers" defined in contrast to classical Hollywood cinema. Despite much in the way of exploitation content from the prison setting, the boxing scenes, violence, comic relief, some over-the-top characterizations, and some good old-fashioned T&A, PENITENTIARY is indeed a different creature: exploratory of its environment – particularly with Hezekiah's description of his "institutionalized" existence – contemplative of its characters and the arcs of their relationships, and more complex in its depictions of sexual politics. While Wilbur "Hi-Fi" White's Sweet Pea is flamboyant comic relief onscreen, he was an early gay activist off-screen and recruited the gay cast members, and the only "unnatural" relationships between men are the ones that are about control or abuse (Eugene describes himself to Gordone as "tampered with"). Kennedy – who had already appeared in supporting roles in HAMMER, MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS, and DEATH FORCE – remains a wronged protagonist worth rooting for not just because of his toughness but also his resolve to move forward with his life and encouraging others to do so as well (Kennedy and Fanaka would reunite for the increasingly outlandish PENITENTIARY II and PENITENTIARY III, the latter a Golan-Globus Cannon Films production). Composer Frank Gay was the brother of Marvin Gaye and would subsequently credit himself as "Frankie Gay."

Released theatrically by Jerry Gross Organization in 1979, PENITENTIARY hit video in the early eighties through Charles Band's Wizard Video label and on DVD in 2006 from current rights holders Xenon Pictures who also rescued the DOLEMITE films as well as Fanaka's PENITENTIARY II and his earlier SOUL VENGEANCE. The DVD featured a non-anamorphic letterboxed transfer with a commentary by Fanaka, both of which were ported over to ArrowDrome's UK NTSC DVD in 2012. Vinegar Syndrome's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is derived from a new 4K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative. With the exception of some deterioration at the eighty-four minute mark, the presentation is virtually spotless and the rock solid image and crisp focus is indicative of the work of formally trained film students rather than dreamers learning as they go along. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track is clean and optional English SDH subtitles are also provided (although one wonders if as many "punches thrown" notations are necessary to the hard of hearing when they are all happening onscreen).

The audio commentary by Fanaka has been carried over from the DVDs, and he reveals that he was still at UCLA when directing the film because he was "scared to graduate" since he had access to equipment and grants (the film was funded by AFI, the Rockefeller Institute, the Ford Foundation, UCLA's Black Students Association, and his parents). He recalls shooting scenes in the Lincoln Heights jail in both of his earlier films and deciding that he could shoot an entire feature there (with the exception of the prison yard scenes that used the UCLA film department quad), and speaks warmly of the cast and crew, nothing that White earned his "craft service" credit by taking over cooking when the money ran out. A new commentary track has been recorded by second assistant director Sergio Mimms who provides not only plenty of anecdotes about the experience, including differences between the script and the finished film, but also background of several of the people in front of and behind the camera – overlapping in some respects with the first track – in the fashion of a trivia-based track.

"Too Sweet for Penitentiary" (40:14) is an interview with actor Kennedy who regards the film as post-Blaxploitation, disliking that term even though it was coined by the NAACP and preferring to describe those earlier works – training grounds for a number of important black actors – as no different from traditional B-movies. He discusses his beginnings as a DJ and nightclub performer who always had the goal of becoming a movie star, and reveals that he was initially cast as Eugene and Glynn Turman (J.D.'S REVENGE) was Too Sweet before the schedule conflicted with his delayed honeymoon with Aretha Franklin. He speaks highly of Fanaka who was open to his input but held fast to having him play Too Sweet low key early on before his confrontation with Half-Dead. In "Filming Penitentiary" (21:37), cinematographer Marty Ollstein (DANGEROUS LOVE) reveals that he went to film school with Fanaka and that they saw each other's films at school screenings where he had earned the reputation as a good cinematographer even though he was more interested in directing. He discusses lighting and shooting in cramped locations, the film's release, and returning for PENITENTIARY III. He has subsequently worked for Tiffen Filter Company and developed emulations of camera filters for digital editing. In "Producing Penitentiary" (28:14), producer Alicia Dhanifu (NEW YEAR'S EVIL) reveals that she was in UCLA's television department when she met Fanaka. She had already directed a documentary on belly dancing and had appeared in Fanaka's EMMA MAE as well as having directed the American scenes for the Italian film SUMMER AFFAIR (a 1971 Italian film with Ornella Muti that underwent some recutting and had new scenes shot for its English version which was released in the USA in 1979). She discusses her role as producer, working with the supporting actors (including casting Spear), the production manager, finding locations, and also reveals that she was on the set for all of the shoot but was not allowed to be present during the bathroom sex scenes (although she does not know if it was at the request of the actress). The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (4:15) and comes with a limited edition collector's slipcover and reversible cover (in this care, both covers are striking). (Eric Cotenas)