In the 1979 prison/blaxploitation film Penitentiary, everyone gets a nickname.
For instance, the main character, played by Leon Isaac Kennedy, may be named Martel Gordone but everyone calls him “Too Sweet,” because he’s addicted to Mr. Goodbar candy bars. Just because Gordone has been sent to prison for a murder that he didn’t actually commit, that’s not going to stop him from going out of his way to eat all the candy that he can. Fortunately, all that candy has not effected his ability to throw a punch or win a fight because this prison is obsessed with boxing.
Too Sweet’s first cellmate is known as Half-Dead (Badja Dola). Half-Dead got his name because he’s already dead on the inside. At least, that’s what I assume the nickname means. It could also mean that, if you find yourself sharing a cell with him, you’re already as good as dead. Half-Dead is violent and sadistic and when he feels that Too Sweet isn’t showing him enough respect, Half-Dead attacks. After an extremely long and grueling fight (one that is made all the more intense by the fact that it’s taking place in a cramped cell), Too Sweet succeeded in kicking Half-Dead’s ass.
Seldom Seen (Floyd Chetman) is Too Sweet’s second cellmate. Seldom Seen is …. well, he’s seldom seen. He has spent 50 of his 65 years in prison. Seldom avoids all of the prison drama and instead, he spends his time in his cell, reading books while sitting in front of a poster of Malcolm X. Seldom Seen, it turns out, used to be a boxer and, when Too Sweet decides to enter the prison boxing tournament, Seldom Seen not only serves as his trainer but also as his mentor.
Jesse “The Bull” Amos (Donovan Womack) is also entering the boxing tournament. Jesse is know as the Bull because he’s big, he’s tough, and he never stops coming after his opponents. He becomes angry when Too Sweet encourage the Bull’s cellmate, “Genie” (Thommy Pollard), to stand up for himself and to not let any man treat him as being “property.” The Bull wants revenge.
Of course, there’s more to the prison boxing tournament than just getting revenge. Win a fight and the warden will allow you an entire week of conjugal visits. Win the tournament and you’ll get early parole and …. wait, a minute, what? I’m all for emptying the prisons and giving people second chances but I’m pretty sure that’s not how parole works. Oh well, it’s a movie, right?
Penitentiary was directed by Jamaa Fanaka, who also directed the very first film that I ever reviewed for this site, Welcome Home Brother Charles. Like Brother Charles, Penitentiary is a film that is obsessed with the idea of being a prisoner of not just the legal system but also of society as a whole. Too Sweet doesn’t just learn how to box. He also learns, from Seldom Seen, that the key to being the “freest man in the world” is to learn how to control your desires and to exercise the self-discipline necessary to make something of yourself. Penitentiary never quite reaches the lunatic heights of Welcome Home Brother Charles, of course. Penitentiary is a far more straight-forward film. Welcome Home Brother Charles featured the title character using his penis to strangle his enemies. In Penitentiary, Too Sweet is content to just beat them up in the boxing ring.
Penitentiary gets off to a strong start. Leon Isaac Kennedy gives a likable performance as Too Sweet and the initial fight between Too Sweet and Half-Dead is handled well. Surprisingly enough, it’s during the boxing scenes that the film starts to run out of energy. The boxing matches go on forever and Fanaka gets bogged down with repetitive scenes of prisoners ducking into a prison restroom to get it on while the guards are distracted by the fight. The film’s narrative momentum stalls out long before the inevitable match between Too Sweet and the Bull. For all the build-up, the final fight turns out to be oddly anti-climatic.
Penitentiary has some strong moments but it doesn’t really come together as a whole. Still, it did well-enough at the box office that Fanaka would go on to direct two increasingly surreal sequels.