Written by: Michael Den Boer on February 4th, 2018
Theatrical Release Date: USA, 1979
Director: Jamaa Fanaka
Writer: Jamaa Fanaka
Cast: Leon Isaac Kennedy, Wilbur ‘Hi-Fi’ White, Thommy Pollard, Donovan Womack, Gloria Delaney, Badja Djola, Chuck Mitchell
BluRay released: January 30th, 2018
Approximate running times: 99 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Widescreen / 1080 Progressive / MPEG-4 AVC
Sound: DTS-HD Mono English
Subtitles: English SDH
BluRay Release: Vinegar Syndrome
Region Coding: Region Free
Retail Price: $32.98
Penitentiary is the first film, that makes up a trilogy of Penitentiary films, written and directed by Jamaa Fanaka. Other notable films directed by Jamaa Fanaka include, Welcome Home Brother Charles and Emma Mae.
By the end of the 1970’s Blaxploitation cinema was a shadow of its former self. And though, there have been a handful of Blaxploitation like films, since this sub-genre reached its apex in the mid 1970’s. The majority of these films were more of a homage to that aforementioned sub-genre of films. Then there are films like Penitentiary, a film that is not bound by the parameters that have now become synonymous with Blaxploitation cinema.
The premise is well executed, the narrative is briskly paced and the characters are well defined. Performance wise, the entire cast are all very good in their respective roles. With this film’s standout performance being Leon Isaac Kennedy (Hammer, Mean Johnny Barrows) in the role of film’s protagonist Martel ‘Too Sweet’ Gordone, He delivers a performance that perfectly captures the essence of his character.
Other performances of note include, Floyd ‘Wildcat’ Chatman in the role of Hezzikia ‘Seldom Seen’ Jackson, this character serves as a mentor for the ‘Too Sweet’ character, Hazel Spears in the role of Linda, a prostitute who is linked to ‘Too Sweet’s’ wrongful imprisonment and Badja Djola in the role of an alpha male inmate named ‘Half Dead’ Johnson.
From a production standpoint, there is not an area where this film does not deliver and then some. With this film’s most surprising asset being its use of humor. Visually this film does a superb job depicting prison life, especially the scenes where new inmates are broken in by their cellmates. Other standout moments visually include the boxing scenes and this film’s extremely satisfying conclusion.
Penitentiary comes on a 50 GB dual layer BluRay. The film is presented in a 1080 progressive widescreen. The source for this releases transfer was newly scanned and restored in 4k from the 35mm original camera negative. Details look crisp, colors look accurate, grain looks natural and there are no issues with DNR or compression.
This release comes with one audio option, a DTS-HD mono mix in English and included with this release are removable English SDH subtitles. There are no issues with background noise or distortion, dialog comes through clearly and everything sounds balanced.
Extras for this release include, a reversible cover art, a trailer for the film (4 minutes 15 seconds), an interview with actor Leon Isaac Kennedy titled Too Sweet for Penitentiary (40 minutes 14 seconds), an interview with cinematographer Marty Ollstein titled Filming Penitentiary (21 minutes 37 seconds), an interview with producer Alicia Dhanifu titled Producing Penitentiary (28 minutes 14 seconds) and an archival audio commentary track with writer / producer / director Jamaa Fanaka.
Topics discussed in the interview with Leon Isaac Kennedy include, Jamaa Fanaka, Blaxploitation cinema, his origins as a radio disc jockey, his transition into acting, Penitentiary, his thoughts about his character Too Sweet, fights scenes, preparing for his role, the cast, how the film was shot in the Lincoln Heights jail, film distributer Jerry Gross and audience reaction to the film.
Topics discussed in the interview with Marty Ollstein include, his origins as a cinematographer, his creative process, Penitentiary, Jamaa Fanaka, locations, visuals, shooting fight scenes, audience reaction and his thoughts about the film.
Topics discussed in the interview with Alicia Dhanifu include, Jamaa Fanaka, Penitentiary, casting / the cast, her role as the film’s producer, favorite moments, onset memories and background information about other films she has worked on.
Topics discussed in the audio commentary include, the cast, locations, inspiration behind key moments from the film, onset memories and background information about prison life. It should be noted there are long stretches where the track goes silence.
Also, included with this release is a DVD that has the same content included on the Blu-Ray included as part of this combo. Overall Penitentiary gets a definitive release from Vinegar Syndrome highly recommended.
Note: This special limited edition embossed slipcover (designed by Earl Kess) is limited to just 1,500 units.