Michael’s review published on Letterboxd:
“Drugs can’t pull anything out of a person that’s not already there.” - Too Sweet
PENITENTIARY III far beyond anything I’ve ever witnessed. The last time I left the theater in such a state of awe was during SPRING BREAKERS, another publicly derided film that was only seen at surface level for what it was. Jamaa Fanaka did make genre films, but his films always have a message about the current African-American culture. EMMA MAE dealt with the discriminatory way of living most African-Americans are forced into, and what happens when someone says enough is enough. WELCOME HOME, BROTHER CHARLES explores the topic of castration anxiety amongst the white population as a way of explaining the unbridled fear and hatred towards the African-American community. The first PENITENTIARY is a sort of culmination of the two films, and how at the time the only racially unbiased place for someone to make a name for themselves was in prison. Regrettably I have not seen PENITENTIARY II. But with PENITENTIARY III, produced by the ever popular Canon Group, Fanaka unleashed a piece of cinema so bizarre, so flabbergasting, and so downright entertaining that one wishes we could rewrite the curriculum of every film school if only to include this film. But what does PENITENTIARY III have to say about the culture?
The Midnight Thud, a “demonic” black little person dressed in S&M gear who smokes crack and knows martial arts, dwells in the bowels of the eponymous penitentiary, forced there by unknown circumstances (presumably a fighter who refused to do the bidding of Serenghetti, the old, white inmate who runs the prison, who has the warden’s balls in a vice due to his gambling addiction, and has his own team of fighters) and is only allowed out when he is deemed necessary by Serenghetti in order to “break-in” new prisoners. In a quick flashback we see the Midnight Thud, then known as Jessup, succumbing to shock treatment. (We can also assume Serenghetti is the same person giving the Midnight Thud drugs.) Jessup is not a bad person, nor is he demonic, but made this way through the exposure of drugs and cruel treatment by the white prisoners and guards. In relation to Too Sweet’s quote, yes, the fighter side of Jessup existed, but the exposure and treatment forced upon him manifested something evil, eventually brought to use against people who do not necessarily deserve it.
To give the film some cultural significance: at the time of its release, 1987, the crack-cocaine epidemic was reportedly at its all-time high.
In other words, PENITENTIARY III is a giant “Fuck you” to the government and to the people who refuse to do anything to help the African-American population get ahead in life.
PENITENTIARY III is a living hell portrayed on film. Darkness bathes most of the prison all while Serenghetti is allowed his privacy, with every single angle perfectly lit, behind red velvet curtains. The little lighting found throughout the prison either highlights the boxing ring or is used to give a mood of unease. There are even moments where unnatural lighting is emitted from several cells, especially when the Midnight Thud is unleashed. Our heroes are given plenty of empty wide shots. And at the beginning of the film, when we get our title, gone is enveloping bright blue with the letters filling out the space, as done in the first film. Instead, it’s Too Sweet alone, defeated and accepting his fate to return to prison once again, with the title appearing above him in small block letters. It’s a solemn note to begin on because no longer is prison seen as an anti-authoritarian place to be, but a place where the authority has made a name for itself (in Serenghetti) because they just couldn’t allow it. The penitentiary becomes a symbol for the 99% vs. the 1% and is the battleground that, if nothing else, must be reclaimed once again.
Though Jamaa Fanaka’s last feature was released in 1992, if not for his death in 2012, we must wonder if he would have been able to jump onboard the crowdfunding train (something that was starting to go full force in 2012) for his next picture. Who knows who or what his version of a Trump surrogate would have looked like.