With Leon Isaac Kennedy, Wilbur White, Hazel Spears.
US, 1979, 35mm, color, 99 min.
Print source: American Genre Film Archive
Part of the group of UCLA student filmmakers of color known as the L.A. Rebellion, Jamaa Fanaka proceeded to make the most of his time there, directing three features as a student: the outrageous Welcome Home, Uncle Charles (1975), Emma Mae (1976) and Penitentiary, the highest grossing independent film of 1980. Though the interiors were shot in an old jail in Los Angeles, Fanaka turned the UCLA film school quadrangle into the prison yard where a wrongfully accused black man must quickly prove himself or be crushed within the abusive, violent hotbed of prison life. Upon a populace that remains unfairly racially skewed, Fanaka sheds an intense, humane—even at times humorous—light on the range of human beings trapped in this toxic environment. Literally fighting their way out—through illegal boxing matches organized by the prison lieutenant—the inmates’ microcosm is also a potent reflection of life on the outside for many black men who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.