Smiles, Hugs, and Power: Jamaa Fanaka, You Will Be Missed

When I met Jamaa Fanaka, I was just discovering the term “Grindhouse.”  I had just gotten myself this film-collector-projectionist boyfriend, and he knew everything about 42nd St and the cinema culture of that area. I have him to thank for my appreciation for the world of exploitation and, really, for my further exploration of film archiving which is now my career, but…I digress.
At any rate, we attended one of the showings of the Penitentiary films at the New Beverly Cinema and all I knew was that Mr. T was a featured performer. That was where my familiarity began and ended with Jamaa upon entrance to the theater. Leaving the theater that first time it was more. So very much more.

Penitentiary 2 (1982) had Mr. T within the cast. By the end of the evening, The A-Team was the LAST thing on my mind.



Not only had I been introduced to the world of Too Sweet and the madness of Fanaka’s prison outlook, but I had also been inducted into the Fanaka-verse. No small feat, my friend!
He talked. And he talked. And he talked. This was no Q&A. It was simply an A. But for a newbie like me? And a Grindhouse audience like that? Back in the day when folks had had a bit to drink or were still sipping their adult beverages surreptitiously in the back of the theater? It kinda worked.
Ladies and gentlemen, the man had SOUL. The man had ENERGY. He had that certain thing that few people on this earth have: storytelling ability.

Yep, his stories were sometimes batshit insane. Did he know that? Yeah, I think so. But he knew *exactly* how to provoke a response.
After all, isn’t that what he DID for a living and as an artist?? To an extent, isn’t that what all artists are? Provocateurs? It is just to what extent they manage to proke you. Ozu may illicit soft and calm responses from you as a viewer, while Fanaka…not so much.
Many people find his films problematic, and that’s fine. But he was pretty successful. He is still the only filmmaker to have written, produced and distributed three feature films while still enrolled in UCLA film school, and Penitentiary (1979) is the single most financially successful piece of the all the L.A. Rebellion films.
Fanaka himself could also be difficult on a professional level. Stories abound, and some former peers approach him tentatively in certain situations. I will readily admit that Jamaa Fanaka was not your standard filmmaker and he was not your standard personality. He was what my mother and my grandmother called “a character.” Jamaa was Jamaa. But on a personal level, Jamaa Fanaka may have been one of the most passionate and endearing men I have ever met in my life.
The night I met him at the New Beverly, he hugged me and called me “darlin’.” I remember the hug. It was so great. He was a big, great man! Much taller than me.

His talk had gone on for way longer than it should have and Brian (the moderator) tried to cut in politely but…that was just Fanaka at the New Bev. Kinda like Sinatra at The Sands: they just worked together; they were macaroni and cheese, pie and ice cream, etc. Jamaa and his parents (!!!) and whole set up left after the films, and my boyfriend and I were cleaning up around our seats (we liked to do that- it’s nice to do at movie theaters!) and we saw that Jamaa had left a few Penitentiary shirts on the seat. WAY too big for either of us. They were XXXXL. But we looked at them, looked at each other, and Fanaka had left so…I now have a Penitentiary nightgown.
Yes, I wear it. With pride.
A few years later, I find myself back in school after a long absence. Another master’s program, same theme, different struggle. Still film, only now I’m gonna be an archivist, not an academic.
I saw this great class called L.A. Rebellion taught by Allyson Field in conjunction with a film series to match. Looked pretty cool, so I enrolled. IT WAS AMAZING. As the class progressed, I looked at the syllabus, and there was my friend’s name, in glowing letters, for multiple films: JAMAA FANAKA.
I was beyond pleased. The night that I took one of my girlfriends to see Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975) which had a great Q&A with him, I ran into him in the parking lot under the Hammer before the show.
“Remember me?” I asked him, “I’ve come to see you a few times at the New Beverly. You’re great. I love your stuff.”
“Ohhh yeahh!!” He enthusiastically said, smiling wide and hugging me tight, “How are you doing??? Great to see you!!”
I doubt he remembered me, but that hug was the greatest thing ever. Just a big bear hug from this guy who loved to tell stories about his life and other people’s lives and give it all *meaning.* It had meaning to me.  

I wrote about that film in our L.A. Rebellion blog. I did so because I enjoy the film, but much of it was because of what he revealed in that Q&A. Welcome Home, Brother Charles may seem to be a ridiculous film to a great many people, but Fanaka’s intentions have never been ridiculous. His love for the medium, passion for filmic history and his respect for everything entailed within is almost intoxicating. You could feel it sitting there in the theater. He may have seemed silly to some people when he got off-topic sometimes, but a man who sits up there and states, quite simply, “If you have the cure for cancer, but no one hears you or listens, what good is that? Film is by nature a mass audience medium…” knows what he is doing with a film camera. He’s trying to reach others; he has a message. I find hope in Jamaa Fanaka, and I find joy in his big beautiful grin.
Losing Jamaa Fanaka is a really sad thing and it is a loss for a number of reasons. He was a filmmaker who, regardless of how you felt about Penitentiary 3 (1987) or Welcome Home, Brother Charles, really made something of himself and showed young filmmakers (especially filmmakers of color) that they can actually *do* it. He had some of the most amazing passion and drive of anyone I have ever met and that, to me, is what makes you a success. It isn’t a number #1 blockbuster, it isn’t $1,000,000. Those things are nice, but if you can achieve things based upon your own love-for-the-work? That is more than all the money in the world.
When I saw Jamaa speak at the L.A. Rebellion series, not only did I see a look on his face that said “Hell yes, I’ve made it!” But I also saw a look that said “Hell yes, I’ve made it to a place where people *respect* me.” These are two different things. When you deal in the kind of genre works that Fanaka has been known to work in, it is sometimes difficult to garner that kind of respect. Yet he was sitting up on that stage discussing classic cinema from the 1940′s and 1950′s in the Q&A about Welcome Home, Brother Charles and people were finally listening. Or, if they had listened before, it seemed to this viewer that Fanaka was registering that they were hearing his educated perspective. Fanaka was not a man to be underestimated. Sadly, I feel that sometimes much of his fanbase did.
I am heartbroken that we have lost our fountain of strange, creative energy that was Jamaa Fanaka. But I think if we were to do so, it was best that it was after he was able to experience what he did with L.A. Rebellion. I wish you all could’ve been there to see his face. I wish I had known it was going to be the last time I would. I would’ve asked for one last hug.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for putting a special perspective on such a colorful man.

    When I was young, and first saw the PENITENTIARY films play in theatres, and just heard the name “Jamaa Fanaka”, I couldn’t help but imagine the man (in my suburban middle school mentality) as some sort of perpetually angry, fearsome stereotype out of right-wing radio; thus it was so rewarding and wonderful to see him as that large, kindly giant of a man who kept us all so entertained during his “generous” speaking allotments. I’m gonna miss him; he was a King.


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