A tough, disturbing and relatively uncompromising look at contemporary prison life, Penitentiary is a solid third feature for Jamaa Fanaka and rates as one of the ‘blackest’ pictures to come along since the blaxploitation trend waned.
Circumstantial evidence lands lanky, street-wise Leon Isaac Kennedy in prison. Balance of power in his cell block, largely inhabited by blacks, is dictated by brute force, with the meanest, toughest inmates lording it over the smaller (read sensitive) ones with their fists. Bottom line in prison relationships is sexual power, and Kennedy avoids the dreaded fate of being used as a ‘girl’ only by beating up his cellmate.
The brutal realities of prison life are rendered with extreme believability, and a welcome lack of preachiness or liberal posturing.