Color, 1979, 99 mins. 7 secs.
Directed by Jamaa Fanaka
Starring Leon Isaac Kennedy, Wilbur 'Hi-Fi' White, Thomas M. Pollard, Hazel Spears, Donovan Womack, Floyd Chatman, Badja Djola, Chuck Mitchell

Color, 1982, 108 mins. 46 secs.
Directed by Jamaa Fanaka
Starring Leon Isaac Kennedy, Glynn Turman, Ernie Hudson, Mr. T, Peggy Blow, Sephton Moody, Donovan Womack, Malik Carter
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Xenon (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Arrow (DVD) (UK R2 PAL)

A Penitentiarybig success story from Penitentiarythe tail end of the golden age of '70s American black cinema was a scrappy indie film called Penitentiary, the brainchild of an Air Force vet and UCLA grad named Jamaa Fanaka. Already a notable talent thanks to the outrageous Welcome Home Brother Charles and gritty Emma Mae, Fanaka proclaimed his intention to buck the parade of pushers, pimps and prostitutes that had become the primary mode of representation from major studios, so he came up with this underdog story that he wrote and directed as an intended thesis project. Released by the legendary Jerry Gross Organization (just before it unleashed Zombie on the U.S.), the film became a surprise hit and spawned two sequels, both handled by Fanaka as well.

When drifter Martel Gordon (Kennedy) catches a ride with a sympathetic hooker named Linda (Spears), the two hit it off and seem destined to spend the night together when she finishes with her scheduled clients. However, a public run in at a diner with some bikers leaves Martel, nicknamed "Too Sweet" for his candy-eating habits, accused of murder and thrown in the slammer. Behind bars he has to protect himself from sexual assault attempts by his aggressive cell mate, "Half Dead" (Djola), which leads to a violent demonstration of Too Sweet's fighting skills. An opportunity arises when he becomes part of an underground boxing ring inside the prison, with the ultimate victor of an annual tournament granted early parole by the corrupt powers that be. However, bigger Penitentiaryobstacles await as Too Sweet has to punch his way to freedom -- even if it means facing off against imposing gang leader Jesse "The Bull" Amos.Penitentiary

The success of Penitentiary meant the sequel was eyed by a much bigger distributor, with United Artists shepherding the film to theaters and MGM/UA initially handling VHS duties for Penitentiary II. In this case Fanaka lucked out by casting the one and only Mr. T in a supporting role just before he broke through in Rocky III and TV's The A Team, even if the film itself is much weirder than what his fans would normally expect. This time the title is a complete misnomer as -- spoiler alert! -- Too Sweet's living back in the outside world and now obligated to work for a boxing promoter as part of his parole, at least when he isn't busy with his day job as a skating delivery boy for the corporate law firm where his sister (Blow) and her husband (J.D.'s Revenge's Turman) work. Unfortunately, Half Dead (now played by Hudson, of The Human Tornado and future Ghostbusters fame) has now escaped onto the streets as well, and apparently with a completely different age and disposition now. This time PenitentiaryHalf Dead wants payback and gets personal in a very murderous way, which forces Too Sweet to put his boxing gloves on once again.

There's very little argument around about which Penitentiary film is the best; with its low budget and effective depiction of life in prison, the first film is still a fascinating fusion of exploitation and social commentary with its characters butting against a system designed to keep them locked in one compartment or another. PenitentiaryThe second film goes for pure outrageous insanity, including a banana pudding sex scenes (with Hudson in a red Speedo no less), Bad Santa's Tony Cox as a midget bookie, and a surprisingly vicious murder scene involving toilet drowning, among other surprises. It really says something when Mr. T isn't the flashiest thing in the film. On the other hand, the first film plays it more or less straight, its moments of violence emerging naturally from the characters to offer the necessary crowd-pleasing moments of slugging and bloodshed. The fact that a lot had changed in the three years between the films is obvious, too, with the hazy, sweaty atmosphere of the first giving way to colorful, over the top '80s attitude in the second including some fashion choices you'll never believe, a disco-dancing mime, and a final shot straight out of a sitcom. There's even a cameo by Rudy Ray Moore, Penitentiaryin case you were on the fence about watching this one.

Both of these Penitentiary films first appeared on DVD in 2000 from Xenon in so-so full frame transfer, each featuring an audio commentary with Fanaka (who passed away in 2012). Incidentally, the third one was released by Cannon and hit VHS from Warner Bros. without ever getting a DVD edition of any kind to date. In Penitentiary II2018, Vinegar Syndrome issued the first and second films in Blu-ray / DVD dual-format sets, both transferred from the original negatives and looking far, far better than they ever have before. The fuzzy detail and milky blacks from the old DVDs are long gone now, replaced with a fresh, crystal clear appearance that gives the films far more immediacy and polish. It's especially jarring (in a good way) to see the first film in such good shape since it's been hampered by its outdated, '80s-era master for so long. The DTS-HD MA English tracks for both sound excellent as well (with optional English SDH subtitles provided).

The previous Fanaka commentary tracks are ported over and have some good info, though he sounds very, very chilled out through these "mortality tales" and might lull you into Penitentiary IIa nap if you aren't careful. And yes, he openly admits the opening crawl in Penitentiary II is an outright salute to Star Wars of all things. The first film also comes with a commentary featuring second assistant director Sergio Mims, who's very lively and rattles off facts like crazy for the entire running time; you might want to start with that one first. Penitentiary II also features an isolated score track (lossy Dolby Digital, but better than nothing), a really nice addition. Penitentiary II

One killer extra (or extras, really) worth picking up both films for is a two-part interview with Kennedy himself, spread out over the two films; “Too Sweet for Penitentiary” (40m14s) covers the early part of his amazing life story from his intention to become a doctor and his career shift that turned him into a successful DJ and actor, which in turn led to the first Penitentiary and his establishment as an action star along with a long friendship with Fanaka. He also talks about being cast as Too Sweet after Turman dropped out, which makes their collaboration in the second film all the more meaningful. In "Too Sweet on the Outside" (16m14s), he offers a shorter sketch of how the sequel came about after the breakout success of the first film (the Suzanne Somers comparison is pretty great) and ended up being released by a major studio (with cockeyed Penitentiary IImarketing), the original plans to replace him with a different actor, and the Rocky III factor.

Also included with the first film are two more featurettes. In “Filming Penitentiary” (21m37s), cinematographer Marty Ollstein explains how his simultaneous careers behind the camera Penitentiary IIas a director and cinematographer evolved out of film school along with other artistic pursuits, with this film posing a particular challenge in its creation of a prison atmosphere on limited sets. In “Producing Penitentiary” (28m14s), co-producer Alicia Dhanifu recalls being in film school with Fanaka intending to be a TV producer and wound up in the middle of what amounted to a student film with major ambitions. Her chronology with this film and Rocky is off by quite a bit, but otherwise there's a lot of good info here. The second film also boasts an archival, mostly unedited Fanaka interview, "In the Raw" (27m39s), in which he goes into his personal artistic process, the tricks of film distribution, the joys of watching your film on 42nd Street, and his hopes for the future of filmmaking. Theatrical trailers are also included for their respective films, and the reversible art options include your choice of theatrical poster art.

Penitentiary Penitentiary II Penitentiary II Penitentiary II Penitentiary II

Reviewed on February 22, 2018.