The cult of Fanaka

Pub date May 19, 2009
WriterCheryl Eddy
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

AFRO-SURREAL Visitors to filmmaker Jamaa Fanaka’s MySpace page are greeted with a clip of Snoop Dogg clutching a pile of Fanaka DVDs — 1975’s Welcome Home Brother Charles, a.k.a. Soul Vengeance; 1976’s Emma Mae, a.k.a. Black Sister’s Revenge; 1979’s Penitentiary; and 1982’s Penitentiary II. He quotes some choice lines and enthusiastically sings the director’s praises: "These movies right here — this is black history."

When I mention Snoop Dogg to Fanaka, he’s delighted. "All the rappers love me," he says over the phone from Los Angeles. "Also actors, like Eddie Murphy. The first time I ran into him, he was with his brother, and they recited [a scene from Penitentiary] verbatim. That happens all the time."

The Fanaka library (which also includes 1987’s Penitentiary III and 1992’s Street Wars) has also earned a following among cult-movie fans. "I love that they’re cult films, because of what a ‘cult film’ means: the film lives because the people want it to live," he explains. He’s not a fan of the term "blaxploitation" — though it’s commonly applied to his films — due to its connotations.

"There were companies that were very profitable, and all they made were ‘exploitation’ films, which meant that they made low-budget films on subjects that Hollywood didn’t want to take on," he says. "It only became a negative term once they put that prefix ‘blax’ on it. No black filmmaker ever liked that term, though it was coined by a black publicist. ‘Blaxploitation’ has evolved into a genre, like a horror film, or an action film. But black filmmakers still resent the term because of its origins."

Born in Mississippi, raised in L.A., Fanaka says was distracted from committing a crime by a pair of UCLA recruiters who made him believe he could realize his childhood dream of becoming a filmmaker. ("They asked me, did I want to go to UCLA? I said, ‘Yeah. I’d like to go to the moon, too, but my chances of getting there are pretty minuscule.’") He was eventually accepted into the school’s prestigious film program, where he also earned a master’s degree; his peers included Charles Burnett, who directed 1977’s Killer of Sheep.

"It was an exciting time to be a black filmmaker," Fanaka says. "People like Charles Burnett were part of my film crew, I was part of his film crew. We helped each other, advised each other. Those were the halcyon days of filmmaking at UCLA."

Even more notably, "I’m the only person in the history of filmmaking to write, produce, direct, and get theatrical distribution for three feature films I made as part of my curriculum at the UCLA film school," Fanaka says. He shot his first feature, Welcome Home Brother Charles, on the weekends when he didn’t have class.

"I felt like, if I had access to all of this equipment, and the wherewithal to make a 10-minute film, why not make a whole feature?" he recalls. "I wanted to reach the widest audience possible, and no matter how good a short film is, the audience is going to be limited. Then I went on to graduate school and I made Emma Mae and Penitentiary."

This kind of determination also extended to Fanaka’s fundraising efforts. His parents invested their life savings into his work (good call — Penitentiary, Fanaka says, was the most successful indie film of 1980), but he wondered why he was rejected for a grant by the American Film Institute. He did some research and learned that only one African American had ever been a part of the grant-awarding committee. "I wanted to give minorities a shot," he says, so he wrote a letter to then-Sen. Alan Cranston suggesting that the committee should be more diverse. The next grant cycle, he got the money to help make Emma Mae; the following cycle, he served on the committee. "That goes to show you how the squeaking wheel gets the oil," he remembers, proudly.

In less-tenacious hands, there’d certainly be no Welcome Home Brother Charles. "White slave owners used to tell white women horror stories about the size of the black males’ sexual equipment," Fanaka explains. "But rather than frightening the white females, it intrigued them. I wanted to make a film that took that myth and exaggerated it to show how ridiculous it was, and I chose to do it in a very surreal, powerful scene."

(Note to readers who haven’t seen the film: uh, think 1997’s Anaconda. The entire Penitentiary series is also a gold mine of surreal moments, particularly part three, which features a prison-dwelling, crack-smoking, snarling killer dwarf. Fanaka sums up that film in one word: "feral.")

Now in his late 60s, Fanaka has been slowed in his efforts to make Penitentiary IV by complications from diabetes. He’s also been working for the last decade on a music documentary, Hip Hop Hope. It’s an apt title for a film by Fanaka, who calls himself "a very optimistic person." He’s enjoyed the resurgence of interest in his work, with screenings at places like San Francisco’s Dead Channels Film Festival and Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, and frequent airings of the Penitentiary films on cable.

"My most artistic film, in my estimation, was Welcome Home Brother Charles, because I had no axes to grind but to try and use the medium of cinema to attack that myth, and attack it in a way that was quote-unquote artistic. Of course, very few people took that from it because that one scene kind of colors the whole film," he chuckles. "But I think as time goes by, people are gonna realize the value of these films I’ve made and begin to understand them."