Nobody Has to Be Nobody’s Property: Penitentiary (1979) - Reviewed

Penitentiary (1979) starts out unassuming as we follow Martel "Too Sweet" Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy), a drifter who gets picked up on the side of the road by Linda (Hazel Spears), a sex worker. They hit it off and decide to go to a diner where Linda has some clients waiting. Unfortunately, these clients start abusing her and Too Sweet steps in to defend her. He gets knocked out in the fray and awakens to discover he has been unjustly charged for the murder of one of the men and he gets sent to jail for his troubles.

Too Sweet is immediately made a target once he arrives at the prison, and has to fend off rape attempts from his cellmate Half Dead (Badja Djola). Once Too Sweet beats the living hell out of him and proves his strength, he is scouted as a boxer in the prison boxing league which could be his ticket to getting out the penitentiary. 

The main theme of the film is the idea that for many years black people have been viewed as property starting from slavery all the way up to the era of this film, as they are now "owned" by the state in the prison and are forced to fight each other for access to basic human privileges. Unlike most films that feature boxing, the fights in Penitentiary aren't edited in a way make them look glamorous--these are desperate men brutalizing each other, not professionals taking place in sport. It's difficult not to compare these fights to when slaves were forced to box each other for white slave owner's amusement. 

In an interesting choice, director Jamaa Fanaka splices in sequences of graphic sex during the boxing sequences. These Pasolini style hedonistic romps between male and female inmates hiding in a bathroom (which escalate into full on orgies as the film progresses) are an intriguing contrast to the violence of the fights showing the dual nature of humanity and how sex and violence are craved in equal measure. These scenes lean more towards the sexploitation side of things, but the intent is obvious.

Finally, the philosophical side of the narrative is encapsulated by Seldom Seen (Floyd Chatman), an older prisoner who keeps to himself and reads books and is also Too Sweet's trainer. Seldom Seen has several poignant monologues throughout the film and is a tragic figure who is institutionalized and only sees himself as someone in the context of being locked up. He weeps at the end of the film for his lost life and turns down a chance for parole because of his fear of the outside world.

Penitentiary is a sweaty, gritty, brutal, and occasionally joyful film that straddles the line between exploitation and social commentary--deftly weaving in and out of each genre like a boxer dancing in the ring. 

--Michelle Kisner