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Penitentiary (1979) - Blu-ray Review

5 beers

Being in the wrong place at the wrong time just might save your life.

Martel "Too Sweet" Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy) has an axe to grind.  If he has to do it against the skulls of the two bikers who kick dust and sand up into his makeshift tent while he sleeps, then so be it.  Motherfuckers gonna get theirs, ya know?  But all those brutal thoughts fade into the brilliant morning sunrise as a van dubbed the “Shaggin’ Wagon” pulls up to give him a lift into town.

It is a ride that will end; as such things often do, with an unexpected prison sentence due to the mysterious death of one of those rude-ass bikers.  But Too Sweet didn’t do it.  Such is the rough terrain of Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary, a proficient Blaxploitation flick from 1979 that is shockingly effective as a whole crew of jailed African American men are reduced to property behind bars.  Almost every line in this film serves as metaphor for the African American experience in this country.

With bottom-heavy beats and greasy guitar licks from composer Frankie Gaye, Penitentiary starts with a funky blast and – as we shift into the actual lockup – we are quickly introduced to its crazy crew of unforgettable characters, including our main dude who got his nickname from a serious jones in his bones for Mr. Goodbar. 

Once incarnated, Too Sweet comes into contact with Sweet Pea (Wilbur White), Hezzikia "Seldom Seen" Jackson (Floyd Chatman), “Half Dead” Johnson (Badja Djola), Cheese (Ernest Wilson), Magilla Gorilla (Will Richardson), Lying Latney Winborn (Dwaine Fobbs), and Chuck Mitchell as Lieutenant Arnsworth, who leads the illegal boxing tournament in the prison that could result in either a man’s death or his freedom, depending on how well he fights.

And Too Sweet is all about it.  Of course, that’s after he and Half Dead go toe-to-toe in their cell.  The two men, one completely pissed at the other, beat the shit out of each other in one of the most impressive scenes in this low budget flick.  The filming of the confided scene took three days to shoot and neither actor, no matter how bruised or battered they got, used a stunt double.  That’s pretty intense and it shows.  Completely. 

With a smattering of humor and a whole truckload of bravado, Penitentiary was the leader in a second round of Blaxploitation flicks that simply roared with anger against the harsher interpretation of stereotypes.  Sure, it has its own demons and, yeah, it treats them the same.  This time, though, the genre wanted to right the ship that was sailing on what came before with a bit more realism and a lot more gore.  There is a seriousness that lands with each blow as Too Sweet steps into the ring and battles for his freedom within one horrible hellhole that few ever escape.

Claustrophobic and socially conscious, Penitentiary is armed with two fierce fists of fury that aren’t afraid to pummel the truth straight into your skull.  Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary is now on blu-ray thanks to Vinegar Syndrome’s newly scanned 4k transfer from the 35mm original camera negative. 


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Penitentiary (1979) - Blu-ray Review

MPAA Rating: R.
99 mins
: Jamaa Fanaka
Jamaa Fanaka
Leon Isaac Kennedy, Wilbur 'Hi-Fi' White, Thommy Pollard
: Crime | Sport
There's only one way out, and 100 fools stand in the way!.
Theatrical Distributor: The Jerry Gross Organization
Official Site:
Release Date:
December, 1979
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
January 30, 2018
Synopsis: Leon Isaac Kennedy stars as Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone who, after unwittingly getting involved with a prostitute and attempting to save her from being assaulted by a John, which turns deadly, finds himself charged with a murder he didn't commit. Locked up in the state penitentiary, Martel is forced to fend for himself among hardened criminals, until he's introduced to the underground and lucrative world of in-prison boxing.


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Penitentiary (1979) - Blu-ray Review


Blu-ray Details:

Limited Edition embossed slipcover designed by Earl Kess

Home Video Distributor: Vinegar Syndrome
Available on Blu-ray
- January 30, 2018
Screen Formats: 1.85:1
: English SDH
English: DTS-HD Master Audio Mono
Discs: Blu-ray Disc; Two-disc set; Reversible Cover
Region Encoding: Locked to Region A

Vinegar Syndrome’s newly scanned 4k transfer from the 35mm original camera negative is a widescreen work of art.  With an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and a fully engaged DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track, the film looks all new again.  Black levels are solid and deep, engaging shadows on the cell walls and adding an unexpected depth to the widescreen lens.  Beads of sweat glisten with clarity.  Skin tones are saturated and damn near perfect and so are the details in the clothing the characters wear.  This is easily the best this film has every looked.



  • There are two commentaries included with the release.  One is the archival commentary track with writer/producer/director Jamaa Fanaka that fans have longed for.  The other is a new commentary track with Sergio Mims, who was the second assistant director, for the film.


Special Features:

This region free Blu-ray/DVD combo pack includes an interview with Leon Isaac Kennedy, who play Too Sweet in the film’s two sequels, an interview with cinematographer Marty Ollstein, and one with Marty Ollstein, the film’s original producer.  This special limited edition embossed slipcover (designed by Earl Kess) is limited to just 1,500 units.   

  • Too Sweet for Penitentiary
  • Filming Penitentiary
  • Producing Penitentiary
  • Original Theatrical Trailer


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Penitentiary (1979) - Blu-ray Review