Penitentiary Review

With Arrow Video’s new label Arrowdrome now in full swing (since its start last September) cult film fans have been treated to budget films for a good price. Thus far they have re-released the Paul Naschy trash classic The Man With The Severed Head, cult action film McBain and several of their other more well known titles (Fulci’s Gates Of Hell Trilogy and Romero’s Dead Trilogy). This year sees them really digging deep for the budget cult film. First up is this release of one of the last great blaxploitation films: Penitentiary. With a film that has a tagline of: “He’s too fast, two fisted and Too Sweet”, its hard not to be instantly intrigued by its exploitation roots. They really do not make them like this any more.

The story follows a young gentleman by the name of Martel Gardone, a man who sleeps rough and fights rougher. While on his way to the next city, he manages to hitchhike a lift from a prostitute, Linda. Instantly she gains a liking for him. Stopping off at a roadside café, several men decide to get a little too frisky with Linda, quickly rubbing Martel the wrong way. He decides to break up the scuffle but gets knocked out doing so. Once he comes to, he finds himself in prison charged with the murder of one of the men. Now in prison it’s a desperate race to stay alive and stay in one piece so he can find the truth behind his imprisonment.

Jamaa Fanaka’s exploitation feature is an underrated low budget classic. It’s clear after watching that this specific film had an influence on other black directors. At its core is a story of beating the system and racism, providing a likeable lead (in the form of relative unknown Leon Isaac Kennedy). His performance as Martel ‘Too Sweet’ Gardone is believable and as a viewer you genuinely root for his small victories over the other in-mates. For once the performances feel a little more believable then most other blaxploitation features (it avoids parodying itself with clunky jive dialogue), which is unfortunately what they became towards the end of this genre wave. Penitentiary pretty much set the groundwork for subsequent prison boxing movies such as Walter Hill’s Undisputed and its sequels.

Unlike most films of this type, very little of the boxing matches are seen until at least half way through the running time. Fanaka uses this to help the audience build a connection to Gardone, his unjust plight for survival and his quest for why he was set up. While some of the performances may feel a little wooden for modern film audiences (such as the prison warden), they work for this film and add a sense of realism at times. Even the boxing matches (once they do finally appear) are raw and gritty, far from flashy or polished. These matches, along with the violence found within the prison cells (and as Too Sweet defends himself from potential sexual assaults) is difficult to watch at times. This is blaxploitation via the Italian neo-realism route.

By the time the final bell tolls on the last boxing match, the viewer feels as though they have been to hell and back with young Too Sweet. The triumphant win is all the more sweet after such a violent ordeal. Penitentiary is quite possibly one of those rare, little seen, blaxploitation films that still holds up on repeat viewings. The fact it has, at its core, a far more realistic approach than some of the earlier films of this era, helps it hold a lasting cult following. If you are after a prime example of the blaxploitation movement (barring the more well known features), then Penitentiary is a good start. This is certainly one feature that deserves more attention.

Extras included on the disc are minimal, but one rather good thing about this release is the inclusion of the film’s sequel – aptly titled Penitentiary 2. While not as good as the first feature, it feels like a nice edition for the cult film fan. Finally, the package is rounded out with the, now standard, reversible cover, collectable booklet with writing from Arrow Video regular Calum Waddell. A selection of trailers and an audio commentary complete the extras. Fans of the blaxploitation movement or those just curious about less schlocky features will do well to pick this up on release. 

Dominic O’Brien

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