Filmmaker Jamaa Fanaka was best known for his 1979 pivotal breakout film “Penitentiary.” He is also known as a leader of the L.A. Rebellion film movement from 1960-1980, when black filmmakers worked to produce films that were alternatives to the Hollywood classics.
Born Walter Gordon in Jackson, Mississippi, the young filmmaker was raised in Compton, California. While he attended UCLA film school, Gordon changed his name to Jamaa Fanaka, which means, “together we will find success” in Swahili. It was during his studies at the prestigious college that Jamaa Fanaka made his first three feature productions, “Welcome Home, Brother Charles” (1975), “Emma Mae” (1976) and the well-known film “Penitentiary” (1979), which was hailed by critics. The film was such a success that Fanaka made sequels in both 1982 and 1987. He was disappointed, however, when his work was coupled with the blaxploitation films of the time period.
Jamaa Fanaka’s signature was that of low-budget productions, with the use of surrounding communities as backdrops and amateur actors. Most often his stories were true accounts of events in the actual community in which he was shooting.
An activist in the film industry, Jamaa Fanaka filed suit against the Directors Guild of America for discrimination in the 1990’s. He believed that the organization had formed a conspiracy against women and minorities in the industry. However, the lawsuit was dismissed under the district courts and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Fortunately, Fanaka and several other black directors had already formed the Directors Guild of America’s African-American Steering Committee to keep the best interests of minority filmmakers alive.
Jamaa Fanaka passed away on April 1, 2012. His cause of death was unknown but has been attributed to complications of diabetes.