• Welcome Home Brother Charles/Emma Mae

    Welcome Home Brother Charles/Emma Mae
    Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
    Released on: March 27th, 2018.
    Director: Jamaa Fanaka
    Cast: Marlo Monte, Reatha Grey, Stan Kamber, Jerri Hayes, Ernest Williams II
    Year: 1975/1976
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    The Movie:

    Vinegar Syndrome brings two of director Jamaa Fanaka’s films together – his first and second features - on one double feature Blu-ray release.

    Welcome Home Brother Charles:

    Shot in 1975, Fanaka’s feature length debut tells the story of a young black man named Charles Murray (Marlo Monte), a small-time drug dealer that winds up doing some hard time after a brutal encounter with a crooked, racist L.A.P.D. officer named Harry Freeman (Ben Bigelow). Despite the fact that Harry beat the shit out of Charles, even trying to chop of his dick, while his partner Jim (Stan Kambler) merely stood by and watched, he’s sent to the big house. During his three-year stint behind bars, things don’t go well for Charles and, upon release, it’s clear that he has essentially lost his mind.

    While trying to reacclimate to life on the outside, Charles shacks up with a kindly hooker named Carmen (Reatha Grey) after learning that his arch-nemesis N.D. (Jake Carter) has taken up with Charles’ ex-girlfriend Twyla (Jackie Ziegler). Understandably pissed off at the world for the lot he’s been dealt with in life, Charles takes it upon himself to use his special… abilities… to get revenge against those that he feels have wronged him.

    Welcome Home Brothers Charles (also known as Soul Vengeance) is a seriously interesting movie. Clearly made without the aid of a huge budget, it works on a few different levels. First and foremost, it’s basically a blaxploitation picture, with Charles serving as the typical anti-hero who has had it with ‘the man’ and all that ‘the man’ might represent. The film also serves as a pretty amazing snapshot of the Los Angeles neighborhoods in which it was made, documenting them in all their gritty, seventies glory. Then, of course, the picture is also a piece of social commentary, tying the blaxploitation elements into themes of racism, police brutality and a system meant to keep black men down. All three of these principals run through the film in a big way, and it’s all the better for it. Of course, the movie is also somewhat infamous for the way in which Charles exacts his revenge, which we won’t spoil here for those who haven’t seen the movie (if you’re in that boat, maybe don’t browse the screen caps below) but which absolutely anchors the picture in exploitation territory.

    Marlo Monte is pretty great in the lead role, making you wonder why he didn’t appear in more films (this seems to be his only credit). He does a great job of translating Charles’ anger and frustration into his performance, never chewing the scenery or going over the top but definitely delivering the commitment and intensity that the part requires. Supporting work from Ben Bigelow as the horribly racist cop and Reatha Grey – who has gone on to do a fair bit of TV work – as the kindly hooker is also quite good.

    Emma Mae:

    Previously released on DVD by Xenon as Black Sister’s Revenge, Fanaka's second feature, stars Jerrie Hayes as the titular Emma Mae. When the movie begins, she and her aunt have just moved from the south she grew up in to the tough urban neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles. The cousin that she moves in with takes Emma for a bit of a dork at first, which isn’t surprising that she’s a bit of a country bumpkin, but she soon proves to be tougher than she looks when she gets into – and wins – a fight with a neighborhood bully.

    Soon enough, Emma Mae falls for a slick but troubled pusher named Jesse Amos (Ernest Williams II) whose penchant for pill popping eventually lands him a spot in prison. Emma’s still in love with him, however, and so she tries to figure out how to get the money to pay his bail. When a car wash doesn’t work, she decides to plan a bank robbery.

    Not quite as interesting as the first film on our double feature, Emma Mae is still very much worthwhile for this with an affinity for Fanaka’s work. Like most of his films, the picture takes on a lot of black issues, dealing with poverty and racism and even more localized issues like drug use in the inner city, bringing them to the forefront of the story without much in the way of subtlety. Maybe even more so than first picture, this one also works as a time capsule. As it was shot on location in Watts, it shows off a lot of interesting footage of the neighborhood as it was back in the mid-seventies.

    The story mixes up typical blaxploitation elements with some unexpected moments of action, comedy and drama. It doesn’t take things to the heights of absurdity that some of Fanaka’s work would climb to, but like all of his pictures it has a lot of quirky appeal. For the most part, Fanaka shot the picture with a cast of amateurs, which means that while some of the acting is less than stellar, there’s an interesting streak of serious authenticity running through the movie.

    Add to this a lot of completely off the wall dialogue, entirely unnecessary but simultaneously awesome dance sequences and some good old fashioned nudity and, if it’s far from Fanaka’s best picture, it’s still quite worthwhile.


    Both films are presented on a 50GB Blu-ray disc newly scanned and restored in 2k from 35mm original negatives” and framed at 1.85.1 widescreen in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Welcome Home Brother Charles is a very grainy film and that’s reflected in this transfer. It also shows a fair amount of print damage throughout. It’s certainly more than watchable and provides a very film-like viewing experience, but it does look less than perfect. Emma Mae, on the other hand, is in much better shape with much brighter, bolder colors and just a much cleaner, tighter picture overall. Neither image shows any evidence of noise reduction or edge enhancement and the decent bit rates afforded each feature keeps compression artifacts out of the picture. As it was with their Penitentiary releases, this transfers from Vinegar Syndrome absolutely mop the floor with the old Xenon transfers and provide fans with seriously huge upgrades in the video quality department.

    DTS-HD Mono tracks, in English, are supplied for each film. Optional subtitles are provided in English only. Again, Brother Charles sounds a bit worse for wear when compared to Emma Mae, though the audio for both features obviously reflects their original elements. Expect some flatness that stems back to the limitations of the source, as well as some occasional hiss and sibilance – none of this is a deal breaker or even all that distracting, but it is there. Levels are balanced well, however, and there are occasional moments where we get some nice depth in the scores.

    Extras start off with The History Of The L.A. Rebellion & Jamaa Fanaka, which is an appreciation by Jan-Christopher Horak, the Director of the UCLA Film And Television Archive that runs roughly half an hour in length. It’s an interesting piece that gives us an interesting history of the film scene that Fanaka was a big part of and that he came out of, noting some of the politics behind the movement and offering up some interesting details about his background.

    Also included on the disc is a twenty-minute post-film Q&A with actress Jerri Hayes that was recorded at a 2017 screening of Emma Mae that was held at the BAMcinématek in Brooklyn. Here she fields questions from the audience about her work in the film and her thoughts on the picture. It’s interesting enough to be worth checking out.

    Rounding out the extras are an original theatrical trailer and two teaser trailers for Welcome Home Brother Charles, menus and chapter selection. We also get some nice reversible cover art.

    The Final Word:

    Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray release of Welcome Home Brother Charles/Emma Mae proves that there was more to Fanaka’s filmography than just the Penitentiary films, even if that’s what he’s best remembered for. Both pictures are quite interesting, albeit for very different reasons, and they’re given strong high definition presentations on this disc, which also includes some decent extras.

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