It was fantastic to see Jamaa Fanaka again. Last time we showed WELCOME HOME BROTHER CHARLES and PENITENTIARY. This time it was PENITENTIARY III and EMMA MAE. Next time I hope it will be PENITENTIARY IV, though I wonder where it goes from here, Too Sweet is in his fifties - he gets framed again - the ghosts of Seldom Seen and The Midnight Thud appear to him in a dream... I guess we'll find out.
PEN III is ruff, tuff, out of control and so loaded with rogueish good times it makes CRACK HOUSE look like THAT DARN CAT. It's hard to believe the same guy who made EMMA MAE, which is so subtle and sensitive, could make a movie that's soooo completely neon and over the top. Unlike EMMA MAE, PEN III is probably not due for a critical reassessment, but it is truly a midnight movie classic with a really sly sense of humor that deserves to be seen much more often. Warner Brothers owns the DVD rights to this, which is bad news because they don't seem to be in a hurry to release much outside of their hallowed classics. It would be nice if a new licensee could pick these up and make a package of all three PENITENTIARY films with commentary by Fanaka and Leon Isaac Kennedy. I know enough of the backstory to be intrigued but I'd like to hear so much more.
EMMA MAE should also have a better DVD release, no offense to Leigh and company at Xenon, who do a great job, but the film should be marketed with its original title and in packaging that more accurately reflects the tone of the film. I'm sure the post-JACKIE BROWN media hype that blaxploitation received colored the decision to package these films in Dolemite-style art but EMMA MAE and PENITENTIARY are good enough to sit next to other classics of American genre film in respectful packaging.
Anyhow, EMMA MAE really is an American classic and as conscious, critically-minded filmgoers it's time to claim it as such. If EMMA MAE had landed in America as a film from the third world with subtitles it would have been hailed by mainstream critics. Instead, few outside of the inner city saw it at all. It's a film from within the black community that expresses thoughts and feelings that could never make it to the screen by the usual route - tiny subtleties that would be vulnerable not only to cultural prejudices but also to the kind of ham handed approach that Hollywood hacks take. Fanaka's perceptions and talents are too delicate for the Hollywood approach - the average producer would never perceive the gradations of character, meaning and social/class commentary in EMMA MAE at all, let alone recognize them as valuable. But we can and it's our job to.
So everybody - from here on out - EMMA MAE is a classic. Got it?
Thanks to everyone who came out, helped Jamaa by buying DVDs and merch. Thanks to Troy Nalls for bringing Jamaa to Austin and of course thanks to my friend for life Jamaa Fanaka.
And thanks to Kordelski for the photo!