Social Buttons

Friday, September 8, 2017

Jamaa Fanaka: L.A. Rebel

By Jesse Trussell

Born in Jackson, Mississippi but raised in LA’s Compton, Jamaa Fanaka is a key figure in the group of filmmakers that emerged from UCLA in the 1970s, known as the L.A. Rebellion. Recent rediscovery efforts have elevated Julie Dash and Charles Burnett (who shot Fanaka’s first feature) into the pantheon of American filmmakers, but Fanaka’s films—an elemental mixture of an entertainer’s drive for narrative with a neo-realist focus on place and social relations—are still wildly under-seen. Financially successful yet forgotten, labeled Blaxploitation while recalling Cinema Novo as much as Super Fly, the work of Jamaa Fanaka is still hard to pin down today, five years after his passing.

For the first time in New York, BAMcinématek’s retrospective tribute Jamaa Fanaka: L.A. Rebel (Sep 22—27) brings together all of Fanaka’s work—from his first short film A Day in the Life of Willie Faust, or Death on the Installment Plan (starring Fanaka himself) to his final feature, 1992’s Street Wars. Though stark in his depiction of the struggle and violence his characters must endure in their daily lives, his sense of the African-American community as a family is key to the overarching humanism of his work. It’s not for nothing that the filmmaker, who was born Walter Gordon, chose the Swahili words meaning "togetherness" and "success” for his nom de cinema.

The centerpiece of the series is Fanaka’s legendary Penitentiary trilogy. Penitentiary (1979), the third feature Fanaka made while still a student at UCLA, is the blistering story of Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy)–unjustly imprisoned and facing the threat of violence on all sides–who is given the opportunity to literally fight his way to freedom. An allegory of the violence enacted upon young black men by an oppressive, nihilistic system, Fanaka manages to find a measure of redemption and hope for his characters.

Penitentiary was the highest grossing independent film of the year and spawned two increasingly unhinged sequels through the 1980s. But like his comrades in the L.A. Rebellion, he was denied a steady filmmaking career. A longtime member of the Director’s Guild of America and founder of its African-American steering committee, Fanaka brought a class action suit against the guild in the 1990s for its systemic discrimination against women and members of minority groups. He sought reforms of its job notification system and to instate training programs for young filmmakers of color, but the suit was thrown out on technicalities. Renouncing his membership in the DGA, Fanaka was unable to complete a feature in the last 25 years of his life.

But the work that he left—from the biting satire of racist sexual panic and police brutality in Welcome Home, Brother Charles to the powerful evocation of African-American female strength and the anxieties of the great migration in Emma Mae—creates an indelible artistic legacy. Fanaka’s strange, intense, unapologetic cinema has a whole world to reveal to us.

Jamaa Fanaka: L.A. Rebel comes to BAMcinématek Sep 22—27.

Jesse Trussell is a Programmer at BAMcinématek.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.