Remembering Jamaa Fanaka
Jamaa Fanaka, the eclectic and kind-hearted film director, the most commercially minded of the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers and perhaps the most prolific student filmmaker of all time (all three of the features he made as a grad student found distribution), died one year ago today. Although word leaked out about his death a short time after he passed away, likely from complications of diabetes, I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t hear of it until several weeks later, when his obituary finally appeared in the New York Times. Ashamed because in the intervening year since I first began talking to Fanaka while researching an article about the LASBF or L.A. Rebellion, I had struck up an unlikely phone and email friendship with the man, who ended almost every correspondance with the phrase, “friend for life.” How sorry I was to discover that his hope of lifelong friendship had come true all too soon.
Born Walter Gordon (he changed his name to the Swahili term for “together we shall find success” in film school) He was thoughtful and incredibly funny, with an inimitable southern quality to his voice that he hadn’t lost even though he had long lived in Los Angeles after a childhood in Jackson, Mississippi. Cheerfully long winded and passionately interested in almost young, black cineastes like myself, when he wasn’t telling me stories from his own life and career, one full of hilarious anecdotes and cautionary tales, he was truly interested in those from my own nascent attempts at forging a life as a director. Friends of his I’d encounter, from Alex Cox to Julie Dash, both of whom he went to film school with in the ’70s, would sing his praises and delight at his eccentricities. Snoop Doggy Dog/Snoop Dog/Snoop Lion is perhaps his biggest fan, but his work has many more admirers than you’d expect of someone as consigned to obscurity as he has been. Bring his name up around film enthusiasts familiar with the era and milieu in which he was able to make films and watch their eyes light up.
Like most black directors, especially ones interested in making non-genre oriented films in an African-American context, he found it difficult to sustain a career. That possibility seemed so unlikely at the beginning. He was shunned by many of those most central to the LA Rebellion because his tastes skewed so heavily commercial. His third feature and most famous film, 1979’s Penitentiary, starring Leon Isaac Kennedy as a wrongfully jailed black drifter, was the highest grossing independent film of that year, taking in over $32 million worldwide on a $600,000 budget. It spawned a pair of sequels, but even in the genre-obsessed go-go ’80s studio environment, he was never able to gain traction. His projects died time and again in development. Although his work is often lumped in with the blaxploitation cycle (his first two features, 1974’s Emma Mae and 1975’s Welcome Home Brother Charles, have often only been available on blaxploitation DVD double-feature discs), he purposefully avoided projects that he thought were cut from that mold, even if exploitation films were more or less all he was offered for the decade following Penitentiary’s success.
In Fanaka’s opinion, race surely played a role in his career’s demise; as one of the few black members of the Directors Guild of America, he spoke out loudly and in public about the exclusionary, insular ways of the Guild. He believe that talk of the need for more diversity amongst above-the-line production talent on the part of the Guild was mere lip service. He eventually brought several class action lawsuits against the organization, attempting to bring change to what he saw as a Good Ol’ Boys system. By the time of the brief, overhyped black American film renaissance of the early ’90s, when his L.A. Rebellion peers like Charles Burnett and Dash were making some of their most lasting work, Fanaka was by his own account a pariah in the film industry. He didn’t make any films during the last 20 years of his life, but not for lack of desire. In the end, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences neglected to include him in the in memoriam reel at last year’s Oscars.
An odd and unfortunate fate for such a lovely man. So to commemorate the anniversary of his passing, here’s a wide ranging, previously unpublished interview I conducted with him about his life and work about nine months prior to his death.
Filmmaker: What initially brought you to UCLA? I guess you got there in the early ’70s. What was your path in the film school to begin with, how did you hear about the film program and how did you end up going there?
Fanaka: What happened, I had been in the Air Force, and I had friends, my best friend before I went into the Air Force was a guy named Cass Nelson. I was out there for a while and we were tight. But I went into the service and he got into a little trouble so he wasn’t able to qualify to join the military. But when I got out of the service, this guy who was so scared to go out with girls was a pimp. He had a candy apple red Cadillac Eldorado convertible that had a rear window with a dollar sign. And he had success, even though it was as a pimp. I would never, you know —- I’ve got sisters and everything.
I had another friend named Chucky. So my friend, he decided to get rid of the Eldorado and get a Mercedes. And believe it or not, man, I had never even heard of a Mercedes. So Chucky had the idea of getting together and buying the Eldorado, and we were going to finance it by robbing these guys. So I’m waiting for Chucky to come back from another friend’s house with a weapon to do this dumb thing. The friend’s father was an alcoholic and had a gun and never even noticed when it was gone. So while I’m on the corner in Compton, waiting for Chucky to come back, I looked across the seat and I see a sign that says, “UCLA, you are welcome,” or something like that. I was like UCLA you are welcome, what’s that? So I made my way across the street, almost got hit by a car, and was welcomed by two nice ladies who were actually just sitting and asked was I interested in going to UCLA. And at first I said, “I’d be interested to fly to the moon, but the chances of me accomplishing that were pretty minuscule.” And they said, “We’re serious, you give us information and we’ll get in contact with your high school and get your transcripts and send for you and tell you what you have to qualify for interest in UCLA.”
That was when affirmative action was the good kind. They were very aggressive with affirmative action. Black people had been held down for 400 years, so you couldn’t expect them to catch up in four or five days, you know what I mean? They were very aggressive with affirmative action. Now it has become kind of a negative thing, I don’t know why, but it was a good thing. But anyways sure enough, I tell Chucky no, I don’t want to do that. And he’s disappointed in me for being so gullible as to believe that this could really happen. But I want to give it a chance. I really didn’t want to do no robbery anyways, I was raised in a good house and everything, I didn’t have a record or anything, and it was just a dumb move. And so in about a couple weeks, sure enough, a card comes in the mail at my parents’ house in Compton, and they got the transcript and everything. When I was in the service I went to the colleges that were near the bases I was stationed at. So I took the college GED, and I had that going for me. And they went through the list of things and pre-requisites that I had to take, the sciences and the languages and whatever, and if I got at least a B average I was automatically accepted into UCLA.
Now I didn’t know about the UCLA Film School. When I was seven years old my parents gave me an 8mm camera, and every time a rite of passage came up in the family, like say graduation from grammar school or going to Disneyland or Christmases, Thanksgiving, marriages and such. I would shoot it. And two or three days later or the next weekend that came up we would all sit around and watch what I had shot. And everybody enjoyed it and it really massaged my ego that everybody was so happy and it was what I had shot. So that was my first appreciation of the moving picture. I hadn’t thought of becoming a director. There was another guy at Compton College who wanted to go to UCLA Film School, and he told me about it. And he says, “Man, this is a great school, it’s hard to get into, but I’m trying to get in.” So I applied for it, and as things would turn out I was accepted and he was passed over. And he had told me about it. But he wasn’t mad at me, he was happy that I had gotten into the UCLA film school. And at the time, there were three major concentrations. There was Television, Motion Pictures, and Criticism. And television and motion picture production went onto a Master’s degree. But everybody had to make what’s called a project A, an initial film. And I had fallen in love with an epic poem called Faust, where the guy sells his soul to the devil. So my short film was A Day in the Life of Willie Faust, and my Faust was a guy from the hood who sold his soul to the devil for drugs. And it was so well-received. My daughter was in it, she wasn’t even talking yet, and she played my daughter, my brother-in-law played the guy that was selling me the drugs, and it was well-received. At the time I was really just writing scripts, but I said I want to direct now.
So my very next film was Welcome Home Brother Charles, which was my first feature film, and I made it as an undergraduate. I was a very dedicated student. I felt so blessed to have a chance at a high university degree, you know what I mean? And I really pride myself, I really loved what I was doing, and it showed all these old films I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. High Noon, and all those films. And I really got a really appreciation for them when we had to discuss them after they were shown. I went on and I was able to get academic [inaudible], because I graduated summa cum laude which are the highest honors you can graduate. And therefore I got an advance from the Rockefeller foundation and the Sports foundation and the UCLA Chancellor, and I got a grant and I put my savings into my film. And I was able to make my first feature which was Welcome Home Brother Charles and I was able to get it to distribute with companies in town and went to graduate school, and so I did my next feature, Emma Mae.
The holy grail of film grants at the time was for independent filmmakers from the American Filmmakers Institute. They probably had 10,000 people apply from around the country and probably gave out ten every cycle. At the time the senator from California was a guy named Alan Cranston, and I told him about the advance from the American Film Institute which was funded from the National Endowment for the Arts. And I said the people who are on the committees who make the decision on who gets the grant, they’re all white. And the community belongs to people that are black, brown, our own filter. Surely enough Alan Cranston called me in, and we had a conversation and a couple of weeks later the head of AFI called me and apologized for the lack of black representation on the AFI committee, and I got a grant which I used to properly finance Emma Mae. And then I was on the committee that gave out grants, I was able to give four grants to black filmmakers. There were 16 members, and four of us on the committee. So rather than argue over who we felt, each one of us decided we would choose four people. That taught me that squeaky wheels get the oil.
I was able to make Emma Mae and it was based upon my cousin, I was born in Jackson, Mississippi and we moved out here when I was thirteen. But every summer, I had a cousin called Daisy Lee, and she would come up from the country and spend the summer with us. And she was like a tomboy, and when she was in town then nobody on the street I was born, I was born on the same bed I was conceived in, and there was no hospital for black people in Jackson, Mississippi. It sounds ridiculous now, but a black woman could not go to the hospital to have a baby. So I wrote this script based upon the soul, the strength, and the protections and love that was exemplified by Daisy Lee, and I called her Emma Mae, and dramatized. So that was supposedly my master’s thesis, and I was supposed to, and I could have, raised it as my master’s thesis and gone on and taken my master’s degree but I said to myself, graduate with what, nobody in Hollywood was returning my calls and at UCLA they had the cameras and the film. So I didn’t release Emma Mae as my master’s thesis, and I went on to make my third feature film while I was a student at UCLA and that was called Penitentiary, and that was the most successful independent film of 1980. It came out Thanksgiving weekend of 1979, but it was running in 1980, and the same distributor that distributed Sweetback distributed Penitentiary.
Filmmaker: Was it Xenon that distributed Penitentiary?
Fanaka: This guy was named Gary Doules I think and the name of the company that he had when they did Sweetback was, shit I forget the name, it’s been so long.
Filmmaker: I know that Sweetback and Penitentiary were both put on DVD by the same company as well, who I guess got the rights.
Fanaka: Xenon did it on DVD, I’m talking about the theatrical distribution. But the guy owned this company, I forget the name, almost ten years to the day I think it was after Sweetback opened or maybe nine years or whatever, he opened Penitentiary in Detroit, the same place that Sweetback had opened. And we broke the house records down. See when you do an independent film in those days, one of the most expensive parts of distribution is cost of prints. So what you do is you distribute it by territory. You go into a territory like Chicago territory, and not just Chicago but the territories around. Right now they go nationally right away, you know what I mean, and that’s a whole bunch of prints. But it was very well-received, I got the top reviews, I was invited to the Toronto Film Festival and I really really loved all that going around, there were so many places and people to see. And they treated you so well. The mayor had a dinner for the filmmakers. And the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the Locarno International Film Festival, which was a real freak show then. Back then it was a really big festival.
So that’s pretty much in general how I got into film. My parents put their life savings into the film, and every time I’d make money I’d try to give them money, and they’d say no, put it into the next film, put it into the next film, don’t worry about it. So I put all the negatives in their name, and that’s why to this day all the films are owned by my family. The rule of the business is money owns, whoever presents the money owns the film. And it was get independent grants and get money from my parents to make these films.
Filmmaker: I know a number of people from the L.A. School of Black Filmmakers were inspired by a man named Elicio Taylor, who taught at UCLA. Did you take his class? Was he at all an influence at all?
Fanaka: Yeah, yeah, I guess just the fact that he was a black professor there meant so much. And I tell you, we had so much, we used to work on each others’ films. Like Charles Burnett, he was the camera operator on Welcome Home Brother Charles. We worked on each others’ films, and the building where the film and television department is located, it never closed. You could stay up all night working on films. And we would stay up all night editing our films and all night discussing filmmaking. That was what we wanted to do, and the scripts of the films that had recently come out.
I was working on editing Emma Mae at MGM, the people called Pro-International who put up for the money for the distribution rights, they had a deal with MGM. And that’s how I was able to get a real good deal on Penitentiary, where I was able to use all their facilities, their editing facilities, their sound facilities, all their facilities there. Post-production facilities. There was a guy named Roger Mayer who was in charge of post-production there, he was a real good guy, and he finished off his career running traffic and he gave me credit. All the bills were in my name but all the bills were paid off by the distributor, so that’s how they were able to get that credit.
But then I’m at MGM editing Emma Mae, I’m walking down the street at MGM just soaking up all the history of the years that the studio had been in business and all the great films they had made. All of a sudden I see Robert DeNiro and I had just seen Taxi Driver. I was talking to him, he’s actually a real nice guy, very shy even then, but we walked all the way down to his set and it was the beginning of our friendship. I’d see him around there all the time because I was editing Emma Mae, he was working on New York, New York, the film that Scorsese did after he did Taxi Driver. And we got down, man! Those guys really knew how to party. Robert actually tried to get me to do a bit role in the film. I kind of regret turning down that bit role because I was offered a chance to work with Scorsese, but I was so obsessed with finishing my own film, you know? But then the next time I ran into Bob, at LAX, I’m on my way down to Rio de Janeiro to promote the opening of Penitentiary, and he’s on his way down to Rio de Janeiro to promote the opening of Raging Bull. And I’m by myself, and hey man we had so much fun because it was Carnival time. And the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is a whole country, man. And people spend all their money preparing for the costumes they’re going to wear for the next Carnival, they spend a great deal of their money paying for Carnival. It was a big, big, big expense. But we got some costumes man and had a grand time. Can you imagine, Robert DeNiro in myself in some Carnival costumes. Joys of youth right there, man.