“ Genre: Action & Adventure / Theatrical Release: 1979 / Suitable for 18 years and over / Director: Jamaa Fanaka / Actors: Chuck Mitchell, Thomas M. Pollard, Carl Irwin, Thommy Pollard, Gloria Delaney ... / VHS Tape released 2000-01-24 at Mia Video Entertainment Ltd / Features of the VHS Tape: PAL „
As a child I remember friends of my mother's talking passionately about the Penitentiary movies; to hear the tales of these movies you would think they were the best films ever made. These friends were fairly middle class with aspirations to go higher in the class system, as a child our family worshipped this couple, but as an adult I come to realise that this couple had absolutely no class at all. Never have I been so sure about the low standards of these friends than after recently watching Penitentiary, undoubtedly one of the worst "cult" movies I have ever seen.
It's hard to know where to start with this movie because to be honest with you it's all kind of a blur. Following the story of Martel "Too Sweet" Cardone (Leon Isaac Kennedy), from the outside world into prison; once inside Too Sweet through bullying decides it's important to fight in the prison boxing team, from here on out it's all kind of....Yawn.
I try never to write off a movie too soon, and in doing so watched Penitentiary until the very end, what I sadly was doing was not giving a movie a chance, but literally throwing away a hundred minutes of my life. Watching this movie is rather like spending 20 years doing a job you hate, it's offensive and almost painful. The story itself staggers between bad storytelling to bad editing; this is the reason why I find trying to tell the movie in a review so much of a blur.
The movie is pretty much an opportunity to display black people in the worst possible light stereotyping them into the category of rapists, drug addicts, murderers and crazy folks. From the first ten minutes of the movie you really get the feeling that this is a piece of racist paraphernalia. What is most sad about the movie is that is written and directed by a black filmmaker known as Jamaa Fanaka, committing the offence of selling his own race down the river.
After thirty minutes of stumbled storytelling the movie moves onto the fighting, which seems to dominate the following forty minutes. While Too Sweet fights in the ring, some of his fellow inmates use the opportunity to subdue some visiting women from the nearby women's prison, when i say subdue they have a choice have sex, or be raped; used as a tool of pleasure, obviously this is all women are worth. While having to endure the unending series of systematic sexual activity you are forced to hear the sound of the boxing match over the top of the lovemaking, further annoyance is that this sound is on a loop, so every few seconds you here the same shrieks and chants along with some wailing noises that you could only associate with a hippo standing on a spear.
All the way through the movie you feel you're not watching a serious piece of cult cinema, but a spoof; it resembles in some ways the Scary Movie films, with black people with over the top afro's smoking cigarettes through their ears. While another individual runs round with foam pouring from his mouth and covering his face while holding a monkey, demanding to see the naked rear end of whomever he finds offensive. I spent a great proportion of the movie laughing my socks off, but not at the great humour playing out on screen, but because of the sheer absurdity of the piece.
Further annoyance is delivered in the fact that when the cast are not talking in a as yet unchartered "negro slang", they are more often than not inaudible due to poor care of the print over the 30 years since the movie was made, in bringing the movie to DVD no time or effort has been spent trying to improve the sound, or the incredibly grainy images on screen.
What started out mildly amusing because of the overall "badness" of the piece soon turned to annoyance, I was annoyed that I was watching a movie that literally stood as a piece of intolerable racism at a time in American history where all cultures were supposedly being embraced after years of inequality.
The DVD is due out in the UK at the back end of 2008, the preview disc I received had no special features, this is not to see the release will not however.