Jamaa Fanaka

Jamaa Fanaka was the outspoken founder of the Directors Guild of America’s African American Steering Committee. (Los Angeles Times)

Jamaa Fanaka, the renegade film director ’70s era black classics including Penitentiary and Welcome Home Brother Charles, died Sunday in his home in South Los Angeles at the age of 69.

Born Walter Gordon in Jackson, Miss., in 1962, Fanaka not only made some of the era’s most memorable fuck-The Man movies, but he was also an outspoken critic of Hollywood’s colorline and discrimination against women.

I came to know his worth as a student at Cal Berkeley in one of Albert Johnson‘s film courses. Johnson, who died in 1998 at age 73, had a way of surprising us with films that most of us had never heard of.

I recall arguing/pleading with him to screen a blaxploitation flick, namely Melvin van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song or Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By the Door. I had heard so often that they were both essential viewing.

Johnson finally relented, I think to shut me up more than explore any of the genre’s purported aesthetic or political merits. He had the class watch Welcome Home Brother Charles, a movie also known as Soul Vengeance.

The ragged plot focuses on  Brother Charles who gets set-up by a dirty cop. In the backseat of the squad car, the cop chops off handcuffed Charles’ manhood, a literal and figurative castration of the “threatening” black man by white authorities.

While in prison, Charles is subject to an experiment that gives him special powers to exact revenge and seduce multiple women.

(SPOILER ALERT: Homie has magically grown a super-human schlong that he unfurls at will to strangle his old foes. Fanaka is so bold to show the brown snake doing its thing! I. AM. NOT. KIDDING.)

It’s Fanaka’s middle-finger to institutionalized white supremacy. See the trailer below.

But Fanaka’s best known film is easily the Penitentiary series, starring Leon Isaac Kennedy. Again, the reformed ex-con is a familiar theme. This time though boxing is used as the albeit heavy-handed metaphor for redemption.

In 2007, Fanaka chatted with Michael Guillen of Twitchfilm.com about his career ups and downs, the origin of the term ‘blaxploitation,’ how he helped open the doors for other black filmmakers, among other things.

Here he explains why he chose to change his name:

I was a student at UCLA film school at the time and I went to see a film called Cooley High. I loved that film. It reflected so accurately the Black culture. It reflected the general culture of young people but specifically the culture of young Black people. I’m always sensitive to credits. I watch the credits—especially the directing credit because I was studying to be a director—and I saw that the credit for the director was a guy named Michael Schultz. I thought he was a Jewish gentleman and I said, “How could a Jewish gentleman be that cognizant of the deep aspects of the Black culture?” I checked into it and found out that Michael Schultz is a Black man. So I said, “I want to make sure that—when one of my films come out—that everybody knows that it was made by a Black director.” Because most of the “blaxploitation” films were made by White directors—they had Black casts but they had White directors—so I wanted to make sure that the public knew that I was Black.

I went over to the African Studies Department, contacted one of the professors in that department, he pulled down a Swahili dictionary, I go through the Swahili dictionary looking for words that would mean something, be my name but also mean something, and I ran into the word “jamaa.” Now, there’s a variation of the spelling. They sometimes spell it with a “l”, sometimes they spell it with one “a”—j-a-m-a-l—and sometimes they spell it j-a-m-a-a, which is an unusual spelling but it was one of the spellings. It means “family” and “brotherhood” and “togetherness”; the commonality of human-ness. I said, “I like that.” So I went further and I ran across the term “fanaka” and it means “progress” and “success.” So I said, “Okay, those words together will mean through togetherness we will find progress and succeed.” That’s how I chose that name Jamaa Fanaka; it means through brotherhood and togetherness, we will progress and succeed.

Read more here.

WATCH the trailer of Welcome Home Brother Charles:

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