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Art Mirrors the Artist

About the Author

Signature image for L.A. Rebellion is a still from Ashes & Embers (1982)
UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

This is a group blog for Prof. Allyson Nadia Field's Fall 2011 graduate seminar, FTV 218: Culture, Media & Society: The "L.A. Rebellion" of Black Filmmakers, which looks at the films in the larger contexts of African American filmmaking, race in American cinema, and the social, political, and cultural environments of the films’ production.

On Friday, October 14th, Jamaa Fanaka’s films Penitentiary and A Day in the Life of Willie Faust, or Death on the Installment Plan screened at the Billy Wilder Theater. Fanaka was in attendance and participated in a Q&A after the screening.

The Q&A revealed that Fanaka, like his films, possesses a quirky sense of humor, and a strong sense of morality.

Fanaka kept the audience roaring with laughter and was able to make even the most intense of stories humorous. His love for the craft shined through his lecture and he gave humor and lightness to stories that would otherwise lack those qualities. He described how he had run out of money three days before finishing Penitentiary and told the cast and crew that he would be unable to complete the film. All were eager to finish the project and told him that they would do the last three days for free as long as he fed them. Unfortunately, Fanaka didn’t even have enough money to feed the crew, but one of his actors, Wilbur 'Hi-Fi' White, stepped up to the plate and told him that he would handle the food. After the film was complete Fanaka approached White and asked him how he managed to feed everyone, White told him that he collected the cast’s and crew’s leftover food stamps and with that was able to scrape up enough food for everyone. With this story, among many others, laughter filled the theater.

Fanaka also described how all of his films have a strong moral view; Penitentiary and A Day in The Life of Willie Faust are no different. The main characters of both films are impacted by their decisions. In A Day in The Life of Willie Faust, the drug user Willie eventually overdoses and dies; conversely, the lead character in Penitentiary, Too Sweet, comes to the aid of his fellow inmates and is rewarded with early release from prison.

The Q&A also highlighted Fanaka’s dedication to his craft. He recounted a controversial tale about how he managed to get the shot of Willie Faust shooting heroin into his vein. Faust was played by Fanaka, but for this shot Fanaka used a body double who happened to be a heroin addict. Fanaka wanted the shot to be authentic and to convince the addict to act in his film, Fanaka provided him with heroin. Some in the room reacted to this story with horror, others with laughter. While the reactions to the story were all different, everyone in the audience left with a deeper sense of Fanaka’s determination to make films the way he sees fit and a strong sense of his passion for filmmaking.

—Moana Sherrill


<p>I entered the theatre with a woman who claimed to be Jamaa's sister. &nbsp;We sat next to each and she whispered to me throughout the film, sharing with me her personal insights and memories about the making of Penitentiary. &nbsp;She laughed as she pointed out her family members cast in the movie, she hid her eyes and said, "too much information" as a male and female convict had sex in the restroom. &nbsp;I was entertained as much by her as by the fim. &nbsp;Experiencing the film through her memories and clear pride of her brother's accomplishment distanced me from the film as a story, but related it in a larger context--as a film created by a community with fingers that extended far into the future. &nbsp;But everything wasn't peachy-keen. &nbsp;As I took a bathroom break, I met another woman who had been involved with the making of the movie. &nbsp;She began pointing out all the people who were dead. &nbsp;She seemed bitter, and long before the interview with Jamaa was over, she had left the theatre. &nbsp;It seemed clear, based upon other comments she made in my presence, that she was upset. &nbsp;At what, I'm not sure. &nbsp;If I were to guess, it might have had something to do with a comment Jamaa made about titles he gave to people on the film, even though they may not have earned them. &nbsp;But I also wondered about the dominance of male directors in the LA Rebellion film series and why the question panels aren't inclusive of a greater representtion of the collective who actually made these films happen? &nbsp;If these films are to represent a community, the Black Voice, then shouldn't those voices who gave be part of this experience?&nbsp;</p>