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*Jamaa Fanaka was born on this date in 1942. He was a Black film director and media activist.
He was born Walter Gordon in Jackson, Miss., one of five children of Robert and Beatrice Gordon. His family moved to the Los Angeles area when he was a boy, his father was an electrician. After serving in the Air Force, he was adrift until he entered a community college film program, which led him to the U.C.L.A. film school.
He made three commercial feature films before graduating: “Welcome Home, Brother Charles” (1975), “Emma Mae” and “Penitentiary (1976) made while he attended film school and released after his graduation. He graduated summa cum laude and by then had changed his name to Jamaa Fanaka, derived from the Swahili for “together we will find success.”
Fanaka was part of what film scholars called the L.A. Rebellion, a small group of Black U.C.L.A. film school graduates who matured in the late 1970s, near the end of the blaxploitation era. The group’s defining aesthetic was to move beyond pimp stereotypes and funk soundtracks in film portrayals of Blacks. Unlike most of the other filmmakers, Fanaka, a Billy Wilder fan, wanted to make movies that were both serious and popular.
“Penitentiary,” starring Leon Isaac Kennedy as a wrongfully imprisoned man, who finds redemption as a prison boxer, received mixed reviews but became the most financially successful independent movie of 1979. As luck would have it he released it during the first boom in affordable VCRs and movies on videocassette. He made sequels to “Penitentiary” in 1982 and 1987. The film was also considered an artistic breakthrough. Allyson Nadia Field, a professor of cinema studies at U.C.L.A. “People think the beginning of independent Black film making was ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ ” she said, referring to Spike Lee’s 1986 watershed hit. “But really, it was Fanaka’s ‘Penitentiary.’ ”
Fanaka became one of the few Black members of the Directors Guild of America, but he found the guild to be insularly saying it rarely acted on its promises to encourage studios to hire more women and members of minority groups. He brought a series of class-action lawsuits against the guild in the early 1990s, claiming that its word-of-mouth system of alerting directors about job opportunities was inherently discriminatory and a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“He wrote the briefs himself; he paid the court costs; it became his mission for future filmmakers, was how he saw it,” said Jacqueline Stewart, a professor of radio, television, and film and African American studies at Northwestern University, who interviewed Fanaka. The suits sought a more transparent system of notification and the establishment of minority training programs. But a federal judge later threw them out on technicalities, and Fanaka was termed “a vexatious litigant.”
He rejected some movie opportunities after “Penitentiary” because he considered them to be in the blaxploitation mold, Ms. Stewart said. Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the U.C.L.A. film and television archive, said of Fanaka: “In a way, his major accomplishment was a kind of a failure to have tried and failed to significantly change the racial politics of his profession. He was punished for it. The guild, the studios, they treated him like a crank. But he was not a crank."
Jamaa Fanaka, a filmmaker who had considerable success in 1979 with “Penitentiary,” a feature-length movie he made while still in film school, but who claimed to have been blacklisted afterward for raising questions about a dearth of jobs for Black directors in Hollywood, died of complications of diabetes on April 1, 2012, in Los Angeles.
He was 69. At the time of his death, Fanaka was working on his eighth film, a documentary about hip-hop culture. He told the film blogger Jeff Brummett that he wished he had made more films, but that he was proud of what he had accomplished, both as a filmmaker and as an activist.