Struggles of Black Film Maker Jamaa Fanaka

Jamaa Fanaka, the writer-producer-director of the prison film “Penitentiary” and its two sequels, said he is tired of having to “reinvent the wheel” every time he wants to make a movie.

“I did everything they said it takes to make it in the film industry,” said Fanaka, a summa cum laude UCLA film graduate who was proclaimed by one major critic as “a brilliant young black film maker” in 1979.

“They said you’ve got to have a hot film. I had three successful films. They said you need critical acclaim. I got rave reviews from the Los Angeles Times, Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New York Post. What do you do next?”

For seven years Fanaka has been trying to hang up his warden’s cap and venture out into the mainstream like the university--trained big-name film makers before him. The problem, he says, is that no major distributor will back him.


Fanaka, 39, said that he had decided on a career as a film maker even before his family moved to Compton from Mississippi when he was 12. As an undergraduate at UCLA in 1975, he managed to make two films--"Welcome Home Brother Charles” and “Emma Mae"--that were commercially released and got him some attention from critics.

But it was “Penitentiary,” a low-budget prison film made on grant money and family savings, that gave Fanaka reason to believe he had arrived as a commercial film maker. “Penitentiary,” released in 1979, was made for a total cost of $600,000 and went on to gross $32 million worldwide.

“Overnight, my life changed,” Fanaka recalled. “I went from having difficulty paying rent at the UCLA student housing . . . to all of a sudden flying around the world.”

Fanaka hit the European film festival circuit with “Penitentiary” and when he returned, he signed with MGM/UA to make “Penitentiary II.” The deal may have helped pay for the baby blue Rolls-Royce he drives, but he said he regrets having made it.

“That was a mistake because it put me into the category of a prison film maker,” he said.

“Penitentiary II,” released in 1982, was severely panned by most critics and grossed only $3 million. Fanaka spent the next two years looking for a major film company to produce “Street Wars,” an action-thriller he had written about the gang drug war from the members’ point of view.

In 1983, Fanaka made a deal for “Street Wars” with Richard Pryor’s Indigo Productions, which was set up at Columbia Pictures. But he said he soon learned from Stan Robertson, a black producer and consultant for Columbia, that the studio had no intention of making “Street Wars.”

Fanaka said that Columbia had declared that it had set aside $40 million for production of films with black directors, producers and actors, but hadn’t produced a single film with that money.


Robertson confirmed that Columbia decided against “Street Wars,” but denied that the studio had ever committed itself to making all eight Indigo films with black film makers.

“We didn’t feel that the script worked,” Robertson said. “We did three to four rewrites . . . it’s one of those decisions that studios make all the time. We worked on it for over a year. We really went over and beyond the call of duty.”

After the Indigo deal fell through, Fanaka said he decided to reunite with Leon Isaac Kennedy, the star of his first two “Penitentiary” movies, on a second sequel with Cannon Films. But this time, he said, he didn’t do it for the money. He did it for his self-esteem.

“Penitentiary III,” released last December in a few cities around the country, received generally good reviews, but has so far grossed only $2.2 million. After weak openings in New York and Chicago, where the first two “Penitentiary” films had done well, Fanaka said Cannon decided not to open the film in Los Angeles at all.


He said Cannon agreed to release it here only after it got solidly positive reviews in the Hollywood trade papers and in The Times.

“With the good reviews I got on ‘Penitentiary III’ . . . the average white (film maker) could take those reviews and get the best agent and go on to their next film,” Fanaka said. “With me, it’s not so easy. I think ultimately I’m going to succeed. I refuse to fail.”