Penitentiary DVD review

Blaxploitation goes to prison for this late 70s outing...


‘Too Sweet’ is a young drifter and is hitch hiking across the desert. Picked up by a woman in a van, they drive to a diner. It turns out she is a hooker and is there to see a couple of customers. It turns out the customers are a couple of racist rednecks, Too Sweet gets involved in a fight with them and the next we know he is in prison.

The prison is run by Lt. Arnsworth who is played by ‘Porky’ himself, Chuck Mitchell from the early 80s classic comedies. Arnsworth is big on boxing and runs regular fights between the wings with the prizes being some ‘special time’ for the inmates with the local women’s prison.

Too Sweet is housed with old lag Jackson, who trains him. As per usual with prison movies, we have a variety of stereotypes including the tough guy, the hero’s friend and an extremely camp fellow who dresses as a woman!

Being that the film was made at the end of the 1970s, there are plenty of flares and afros on show. Penitentiary is shot in a bleak fashion by director Jamaa Fanaka and indeed retains the claustrophobic feel of a prison. Maybe this was down to the low budget, but the film was made very cheaply, and so on occasion appears very amateurish – particularly as regards some of the acting.

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The lead actor, Leon Isaac Kennedy, certainly looks very cool in the lead role and reminds me of a low-budget Jim Kelly from Enter The Dragon. He has a good physique and his boxing scenes are quite credible. Surprisingly, there are quite a few comic moments in the film, especially in some of the boxing scenes where inmates are knocked out and their dubious boxing skills are on show.

For the first 40 minutes or so, the film does drag and seems to just ‘happen’, and then suddenly it kicks into gear. At this point, I started to enjoy the film and wanted to know what happens at the end. A downside, in my opinion ,are the crass sex scenes in the prison toilet. Now I have no issues with such scenes but they seem only to be there for some nudity in the male-dominated film. The first one’s build up is actually quite funny, though…

I remember seeing what I think was the film when I was a young lad at the beginning of the 80s. All I could remember was the boxing and the funky black guys. Maybe it was this film that kicked off my love of blaxpoitation cinema, but I do remember seeing one of the Shaft films around this time on video. After that my love of the genre grew. Films to watch out for if you like blaxpoitation are, of course, the three Shaft films, Truck Turner, the immortal Blacula and Black Shampoo. If you like the genre, pick up the book celebrating it from FAB Press, it’s a terrific read.

The film presented on DVD is, unfortunately ,quite a battered print. The quality gets better as Penitentiary progresses, but the sound is at times quite poor. I would think this was due to the sound recording when it was being filmed. Credit, however, goes to the groovy soundtrack, in particular the band in the prison grounds (when you watch the film, you will know what I mean). On the disc is the theatrical trailer, commentary and a gallery of newspaper cuttings. The gallery is interesting as it features ads for the film and newspaper articles (get ready with that pause button).

Two further sequels were made, which I know I haven’t seen. The first sequel has Mr. T in it, so that certainly has some curiosity value. Penitentiary is certainly a product of its time and is horribly dated. In some circles it is looked on as a minor classic; I certainly wouldn’t put it in such company as the films mentioned above, but if you like these kind of films, pick it up. I liked it.


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2 stars
Extras: None.

Penitentiary is out now.


2 out of 5