• Penitentiary (Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack)

    Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
    Released on: January 30th, 2018.
    Director: Jamaa Fanaka
    Cast: Leon Isaac Kennedy, Wilbur ‘Hi-Fi’ White, Thommy Pollard, Donovan Womack, Gloria Delaney, Badja Djola, Chuck Mitchell
    Year: 1979
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    The Movie:

    An unusual late entry into the so called 'blaxploitation' genre that started with films like Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song and Shaft, Penitentiary is a blend of the urban action, boxing and prison films all rolled into one package. If the film, at times, seems to be striving to find its political voice amidst it's violent plot and strange characterizations, so be it. The entertainment value in the film remains ridiculously strong and it’s hard not to appreciate the film’s gritty atmosphere.

    The story revolves around Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy), a young black man who is framed for an incident involving the assault of a van driving woman named Linda (Hazel Spears) when he tries to save her from a violent customer. For his good deed, he earns himself a stint in the slammer, convicted of a murder that he didn’t commit. Once he's inside, he finds out about a series of underground prison boxing matches that are put on by Lieutenant Arnsworth (Chuck Mitchell of Porky's fame). See, Arnsworth’s brother-in-law is a fight promoter and as such, he’s always on the lookout for new talent. If you're good enough, and Arnsworth figures you can make his brother-in-law Sam (Carl Irwin) some money, you just might find yourself with an early parole. While these boxing matches are going on, Arnsworth allows female inmates from a nearby woman’s prison to sneak in so that some of the prisoners can get a little action in the bathrooms during the bouts.

    Along the way, “Too Sweet” is targeted by his cell mate “Half Dead” (Badja Djola of The Serpent And The Rainbow). He’s aiming to make “Too Sweet” his bitch in the manner that incarcerated types tend to do sometimes. But when “Too Sweet” foils “Half Dead’s” plans of anal conquest, the gloves are off. Meanwhile, “Too Sweet” helps out another new inmate named Eugene (Thommy Pollard) who has recently been made the bitch of his cell mate, Jesse (Donovan Womack). He also befriends an older man named “Seldom Seen” (Floyd 'Wildcat' Chatman), who seems to have been behind bars forever and will likely spend the rest of his life there. But eventually, the gloves are back on, and “Too Sweet” and “Half Dead” take it to the ring and settle things man to man while things come to a boil with Jesse and Eugene…

    “All that stands between him and freedom is the ring.”

    A genuinely weird film, Penitentiary takes itself a lot more seriously than a lot of other black action films from this time period tended to. Despite an absolutely insane cast of jive talkin' inmates and hoodlums, the film still manages to be pretty competent and even cynical for most of its duration. Martel’s been given a pretty bum lot in life. He doesn’t deserve to be in jail for trying to do the right thing, but there he is, and once he’s behind bars he’s got a whole new set of problems to deal with. Calling the character ‘down on his luck’ doesn’t even being to really properly describe his situation. Of course, the conflict that erupts with “Half Dead” means his situation goes from bad to worse, but there’s a shining light here – Martel can fight and he proves himself in the ring. The film does an interesting job of presenting this without preaching or posturing. Fanaka lays it all out for us in a very ‘matter of fact’ style, and while we’re understandably sympathetic to “Too Sweet” as well as some of the more sensitive/less dominant inmates like Eugene, the film isn’t nearly as judgmental as you might expect.

    While all of the stereotypes of most 'blaxploitation' films are there, the movie somehow manages to move past the limitations imposed on it and presents an interesting look at some semi-realistic characters in totally absurdist situations. Here, sexual dominance is power and as such, there’s a lot of rape in the film. The fight scenes are reasonably well shot. There are times where we wonder if “Too Sweet” really would last as long as he does in the ring, his stance is a little funky, but he’s going up against fellow inmates rather than pro fighters so we can let this pass. Otherwise, the film’s got a remarkably gritty and authentic vibe to it that goes a long way towards making this reasonably insane film feel more grounded than it would have been otherwise.


    Vinegar Syndrome brings Penitentiary to Blu-ray for the first time ‘newly scanned and restored in 4k from the 35mm original camera negative’ framed at 1.85.1 widescreen and it looks great. Previously released on crummy looking non-anamorphic DVD from Xenon, grain is thick in spots but this isn’t a problem. Detail is quite strong, surprisingly so at times, and texture and depth are frequently impressive. The image is quite clean, there’s only minor white specks and the like, rather than more noticeable instance of print damage. Skin tones look nice and natural and the disc is free of compression artifacts, edge enhancement or obvious noise reduction problems.

    Audio chores for the feature are handled by the English language DTS-HD Mono track. Dialogue is clean, clear and easy to follow and the score has good resonance and clarity – most of the time. There are also times where the dialogue is a bit echoey, simply the result of filming on a low budget in a prison that was likely less than ideal for capturing pristine audio. There are no audible issues with any hiss or distortion and the levels are nicely balanced. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.

    Carried over from the old Xenon DVD release is also a commentary with the film’s late director, Jamaa Fanaka, that runs the entire length of the film. While there is a lot of good information revealed about the film and it's cast, the track suffers from the dreaded 'dead air' syndrome and there are too many times where Fanaka seems to have nothing to say. It's worth at least one listen for fans of the movie, as he talks about his inspiration for the film, working with the different cast members, making the film while still enrolled at UCLA, and the locations that were chosen for the picture, but it’s hard to say that it'd be worth revisiting.

    The disc also includes a new commentary track with second assistant director Sergio Mims. He starts off by talking about how impressed he is with the restoration before then going on to talk about what makes the film important. He talks about working with Jamaa Fanaka, the music used in the film, his thoughts and memories of the cast (he has no idea what happened to Hazel Spears), the locations that were used in the picture (he even goes into some of the history of the prison), the quality of the cinematography and its noirish qualities, the notorious Kennedy sex tape, how and why it took so long to shoot the boxing sequences, Fanaka’s role in the ‘L.A. Rebellion Film Movement’ and loads more. This track is great – it’s chock full of information and Mims delivers it all in a very listenable style.

    From there, we move on to the first of the featurettes with Too Sweet For Penitentiary, a new interview with Leon Isaac Kennedy that runs just over forty-minutes. He starts by talking about Jamaa Fanaka, how they came to make the three Penitentiary films together, the black film scene of the era in which these movies were made, how he got into acting, becoming best friends with the director, his thoughts on the script, the characters in the film and the bonds they share, what it was like on set during the shoot, the marketing behind the film and plenty more. This is very thorough and it covers a lot of ground.

    Filming Penitentiary interviews cinematographer Marty Ollstein that clocks in at twenty-one minutes. He talks about how he got into the film industry after developing an interest in still photography. From there he discusses how he went to UCLA and started actually making films and joining the community there where he gained a lot of experience. From there he talks about meeting Fanaka, shooting Penitentiary, the trickiness of filming some of the boxing scenes with the help of a fight choreographer, equipment that they used, why he chose to use a handheld camera at times, how intense it was to be on the set and the long days that were required and how he enjoyed seeing the film in commercial theaters where it got an enthusiastic response.

    Last up, Producing Penitentiary is a twenty-eight-minute interview with one of the film’s producers, Alicia Dhanifu. She talks about going to film school, meeting Fanaka and hitting it off with him. She talks about their early working relationship and respect for each other’s creativity before then how she wound up co-producing this film. She shares some stories about working with the talent that was assembled to work both in front of and behind the camera, what her responsibilities included and how in so many ways Penitentiary really was a student film.

    Outside of that the disc also includes the film’s original theatrical trailer, animated menus and chapter selection. As this is a combo pack release we also get a DVD version of the movie containing the same supplements that are found on the Blu-ray disc, and on top of all that the first 1500 copies purchased from Vinegar Syndrome’s website come with an exclusive slipcover. Oh, and there’s some very cool reversible cover art included with this release as well.

    The Final Word:

    Penitentiary holds up well, a tough and prison film made with a remarkably insane cast and featuring some pretty intense fight scenes. Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray release makes the old out of print Xenon disc irrelevant, carrying over all the extras from that DVD, adding some new ones to the mix and presenting the film in a vastly improved presentation.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!