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Penitentiary [DVD] [1979] [US Import]

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Product details

  • Actors: Wilbur 'Hi-Fi' White, Leon Isaac Kennedy, Thommy Pollard, Hazel Spears, Donovan Womack
  • Directors: Jamaa Fanaka
  • Writers: Jamaa Fanaka
  • Producers: Leon Isaac Kennedy, Jamaa Fanaka, Albert Shepard, Alicia Dhanifu, Beatrice Gordon
  • Format: Colour, DVD-Video, HiFi Sound, PAL
  • Language: English
  • Region: All Regions
  • Aspect Ratio: 4:3 - 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Classification: R (Restricted) (US MPAA rating. See details.)
  • Studio: Xenon
  • DVD Release Date: 4 Mar 2003
  • Run Time: 99 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: 6305582726
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 461,635 in DVD & Blu-ray (See Top 100 in DVD & Blu-ray)



Penitentiary is the first of many in a series depicting the harrowing prison existence of a convict who uses his wits and fists to survive. Leon Isaac Kennedy's character is thrown deep into the bowels of the prison system, where the only consistent truth is kill or be killed. To show his strength and gain respect from the other inmates, Kennedy must distinguish himself as a boxer, taking on all comers to save his own skin and regain his pride as a human being. Surprisingly effective in its harsh detailing of violent prison life, the film addresses the dehumanization of prisoners without excusing their crimes. Thought of as an exploitation picture, Penitentiary rises above its roots to provide a blunt and passionate look at one man's struggle on the inside. --Robert Lane


The Guardian

Best label 2011


"It's often the smaller-funded labels that do the best work. Arrow has released marvellous discs of many of cinema's classics, such as Bicycle Thieves, Rififi and Les Diaboliques, but it's for their horror releases that they truly excel. The more respectable directors like George A Romero and Dario Argento get their due here, but Arrow also pull out all the stops for such (unfairly) lesser regarded Gore-teurs as Lucio Fulci and Frank Henenlotter. Blu-rays of Fulci classics The Beyond and City Of The Living Dead show that the films are far more atmospheric and better made than they ever appeared before, and for Henenlotter (with the imminent Frankenhooker disc) you get extensive extras that cover the rarely examined scene of low-budget New York film-makers and the lost grindhouses of Times Square and 42nd Street."

--The Guardian

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By I love New York VINE VOICE on 19 Mar 2012
Format: DVD
A classic low budget Boxing Prison movie that get's a good release from Arrow.

Penitentiary is low budget and also a great advert for people not to end up in Prison (especially American ones) unless you can seriously look after yourself. Shot on a miniscule budget mainly on the campus of UCLA and a derelict unused prison it looks better than it should even with some not so great acting.

The release contains an interesting Directors commentary and a feature on Penitentiary 2 (not sure why it doesn't include one for this movie) and that is pretty much it.

Since it is a budget release by Arrow and is priced as such it's still a good release.

4 stars from me.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Arch Stanton on 12 Jan 2013
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
A young drifter gets sent down for a crime he didn't commit and has to use his fists in order to not be passed around like currency. He quickly joins the inmates boxing club and starts to float like a butterfly, making friends and enemies in the process but when a lucrative offer comes around in the form of a boxing tournament, where horny jail tramps and freedom are the prize, will he have the moves in order to be 'hey number one'..?
Amusing boxing comedy with elements of drama and erm. . . brotherly love. Ive never been a big fan of prison movies but this is a good enough entry in the subgenre and its easy to see why it led to a couple of sequels. The acting is a bit ropey (pun intended!) but the dialogue and action is champion (pun also intended), with a light hearted, yet frank and at times brutal directorial eye. The old trainer dude steals the show and some of the hairstyles are worth there (considerable) weight in gold. Despite the fact that there are indeed a lot of sweaty men in this, it's actually quite good and much better than some reviews, which are a little below the belt (sorry!), would have you believe..
I got the Arrow version with the purple cover, which also seems to include Penitentiary 2 as bonus!! Thats right, the full movie! Cheers Arrow! However i haven't watched this yet, so a confirmation update will soon follow! Recommended to fans of american exploitation movies (or people that like watching sweaty men hit one another!).
Update: Yep this version contains both the first and second Penitentiary films. But the print on the sequel could've been better.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 25 reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
I can defiantly see why this is one of John Singleton's favorite films 9 Oct 2006
By Jenny J.J.I. - Published on
Format: DVD
This film was really good. Writer and director Jamaa Fanaka was still a student at UCLA and Penitentiary was the first starring vehicle for former disc jockey and future evangelist Leon Isaac Kennedy. If you don't know the story it goes like this; Too Sweet (Leon Isaac Kennedy) is charged with murder, and convicted despite his innocence; he's shipped off to a run-down prison where Jesse Amos (Donovan Womack), one of the prisoners, lords it over the other inmates. Too Sweet ends up sharing a cell with Half Dead (Badja Djola), a violent lunatic who is one of Jesse's musclemen. Too Sweet refuses to buckle under to the intimidation dished out by Half Dead and his cronies, even after seeing how they've "turned out" Eugene (Thommy Pollard), another new fish who has become Jesse's sexual slave. Forced to defend himself even though he hates violence, Too Sweet displays a genuine talent for fighting, and is persuaded to take part in the prison boxing tournament, where he could win a night with a woman or even his freedom. However, Too Sweet sees the deck may be stacked against him when he finds out his opponent is the horrible Half Dead.

After watching this I found the fight between Too sweet and Half dead particularly interesting. Through out this film you will also find some of the characters to be animated with there jail house humor and realism through others such as Too Sweet's trainer. The cinematography wasn't bad also. The use of the wide angle lenses to give the viewer a distorted view was impressive and the way some characters address the camera was interesting and strange at the same time. Some people say that part two is even funnier and I might give it a try later in the future.

This exploitation is a masterpiece, PENITENTIARY (1979) is especially worth watching because of its strange, neo-realism. An almost all-unknown cast (that also contributes a lot to the movie's appeal), realistic 1970s African American dialog and backgrounds, realistic and mind-bending scenes of perverse violence and huge doses of humor make this a blast in every department. It's a must-see if you're a fan of this genre and one to check out.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
By Ms Michele - Published on
Format: DVD
Wow, what memories; this movie is definately a cult classic. I remember going to the movies (I'm in Detroit) once every weekend to see this as long as it was at the Madison Theatre (not a theatre anymore). "Half-Dead" had a pretty successful career after this but I don't see any more of the cast anywhere. The warden was "Porky" in the Porky's movie; I believe Leon Isaac Kennedy learned the truth in Christ. Anyway, enough rambling....want a memory??? Pick this up!!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Most Realistic Prison Movie Ever! 10 Mar 2006
By Seldom Seen - Published on
Format: DVD
Penitentiary. Wow! This is not your average, run of the mill, candy-coated prison movies. Be sure to fasten your seatbelt before taking off on this journey. After seeing it for the first time, it shocked me because I wasn't ready. However, after that, I basically became hooked. I simply cannot get enough of Penitentiary. The fight seen between Half Dead Johnson and Too sweet is the best raw, street fight type of battle you will ever witness on screen. The "Crazy Man" game, when Too Sweet jumped on Big Jesse, the (heterosexual) orgies in the bathroom, the final bout . . . I could go on and on about this movie, but I'll end here by saying if you are a fan of prison movies, you simply can't go wrong with Penitentiary. Too Sweet is the Man!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Don't get locked up unless you can fight 12 Mar 2009
By R. Allen - Published on
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
This movie will make anyone clean up their act and get straight to keep from getting locked up. Either that or it will make you want to become a boxer in the slammer so you can hook up with chicks. This movie has some memorable scenes that will have you rolling. One of the rare times that the nickname "Too Sweet" in prison doesn't mean you are someones girlfriend.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Violence, Sex and Prison 26 Nov 2010
By J. Lewis - Published on
Format: DVD
"Penitentiary" appeared in 1979, at the end of the blaxploitation movie era, and has some of the hallmarks the genre: a few wooden performances and rather poor production values. It's nonetheless an excellent film. T Donovan Womack as "Jesse" the prison shot-caller, Badja Djola as "Half Dead" and a few others compensate for the wooden performances. The real authenticity of the movie compensates for it low-budget production values. Wherever director-writer Jamaa Fanaka got it, he clearly had reliable information about his topic.

The theme running through "Penitentiary" is a prison gang's attempt to convert a young new inmate who they dub "Too Sweet" into their sex-slave through rape, an effort foiled when the intended victim defeats and in turn sodomizes his anointed rapist, "Half-Dead." A sub-plot involves the relationship between the shot-caller "Jesse" and his prison wife Eugene, renamed "Jenny" after he is turned-out. It closely follows the realities of prison sex and sexuality, including the nuances of how sex, violence and love can get fused and confused. Thus we see a scene of extreme violence when "Jesse" brutally beats "Jenny" for standing over instead of sitting down on the toilet while urinating -- defying his role as "wife" and substitute female by committing a uniquely masculine act -- followed later by "Jesse's" half-apology in which he tells "Jenny" that "you all I got." The hard, brutal and ruthless prison gang leader had fallen in love with his victim. At another moment, one inmate quibs to another who's been knocked out in an organized boxing match, "how am I gonna get some pu--y with you laying on your back?"

"Penitentiary" is full of moments like these which anyone familiar with the research on prison sexuality will recognize as absolutely true. These are easy to miss or misunderstand for those who are not familiar with the nuances of prison realities, or who have been mislead about it by some academic misunderstandings of it inspired by feminist theory applied to male prison situations ("rape is not about sex, it's about power" -- BS, at least in prison!). This indeed is a film worth watching.
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