Penitentiary (1979)

Penitentiary (1979)

“You got to keep yourself in shape around here — this place is full of fools! If you don’t handle the fools, they handle you.”

When a hitchhiker (Leon Isaac Kennedy) gets involved with a prostitute (Hazel Spears) who inadvertently sends him to prison, he must deal with a sadistic cellie (Badja Djola). After joining a boxing league in an attempt to earn his release, he is re-assigned to live with an aging prisoner (Floyd Chatman) whose “live and let live” goal is simply to survive.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • African Americans
  • Boxing
  • Prisoners

This blaxploitation film by director Jamaa Fanaka is notable as a representative flick within the genre, and for featuring a (relatively) realistic look inside mostly-black prisons of the 1970s. Kennedy’s situation of having no choice to survive other than through boxing echoes many other Hollywood films — most notably From Here to Eternity (1953) — but primarily serves as the excuse to feature seemingly countless bouts in the ring, fully sanctioned by an overweight white guard (Chuck Mitchell) who is mercifully decent towards his charges.

Thankfully, Kennedy is a determined and strong enough protagonist to manage every hurdle coming his way. Also of note is Chatman as a lifetime prisoner:

who is clearly meant to serve as a powerful and viable contrast to Kennedy’s get-out-no-matter-what-it-takes attitude; his character rings very true.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Semi-realistic footage of life inside prison

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re curious.


One thought on “Penitentiary (1979)

  1. First viewing. Not must-see.

    A less-exaggerated entry in the blaxploitation series; an undistinguished ’70s prison drama, full of ‘fine’ stereotype roles for young black actors. (However, as mentioned, Kennedy is a “strong enough protagonist” and Chatman is “of note”.)

    Plenty of boxing action, some semi-explicit sex, and it also has a seemingly accurate view on prison homosexuality.

    At least it’s shot reasonably well.

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