Helmed 'Penitentiary,' sued DGA, studios

Jamaa Fanaka, director of “Penitentiary,” a low-budget independent film that mixed the blaxploitation, prison and boxing genres to become a box office success in 1980, died in South Los Angeles on Sunday, according to the Los Angeles Times. He was 69.

Fanaka’s films also included two sequels to “Penitentiary,” which also starred Leon Isaac Kennedy, but later he was well known for suing the Directors Guild of America and the Hollywood studios, claiming that racist hiring practices kept him from directing more movies. He also named the FBI as a defendant in at least one of his multiple suits, and all were dismissed in the early stages of litigation.

Utilizing government grants and private donations, Fanaka directed three films while still a student at UCLA Film School: “Welcome Home Brother Charles,” “Emma Mae” and “Penitentiary.” “Welcome Home, Brother Charles” (1975) explored the consequences of racism; Emma Mae (1976) concerned a young woman who experiences culture shock when she moves from Mississippi to Los Angeles.

He was also the producer on these films and the writer of “Penitentiary” and its sequels, “Penitentiary II” in 1982 and “Penitentiary III” in 1987. (Mr. T appeared in “Penitentiary II” the same year he made a splash in “Rocky III.”) Fanaka’s last film was 1992’s “Street Wars,” an actioner starring Alan Wone.

In the 1990s Fanaka fell afoul of the DGA by repeatedly disrupting events held by the guild’s African-American Steering Committee. He was subsequently suspended by the DGA, from which Fanaka promptly resigned, declaring that the guild’s leadership had acted “to retaliate against me for my efforts on behalf of minority filmmakers and to deny me my First Amendment rights of free speech.”

Fanaka was born Walter Gordon in Jackson, Miss.

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