Jamaa Fanaka, director of Penitentiary — a movie he made while in film school at UCLA that became an independent smash hit in 1979 after he graduated — has died. Fanaka was 69 and was found dead April 1 at his home in South Los Angeles. His family said his death was the result of complications from diabetes. Fanaka was part of what film scholars called the L.A. Rebellion, fellow UCLA grads who came of age in the late 1970s. They included avant-garde filmmakers Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, My Brother’s Wedding) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust). His 1972 short film A Day in the Life of Willie Faust, or Death on the Installment Plan was among works featured last month at LA Filmforum’s retrospective The LA Rebellion: Boundary Breaking Shorts at the Egyptian Theatre. UCLA Cinema School professor Allyson Nadia Field described Penitentiary as “the transition moment between blaxploitation and independent black filmmaking. People think the beginning of independent black filmmmaking was She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s landmark 1986 film, “But really, it was Fanaka’s Penitentiary.” Fanaka became one of the few black members of the Directors Guild of America, but he said the guild gave only lip service to diversity at the studios. He took the DGA to federal court over the issue, but the cases were thrown out. In addition to earlier films Welcome Home Brother Charles and Emma Mae, he made two sequels to Penitentiary as well as Street Wars. Survivors include his parents, three daughters, a son, two brothers and a sister.
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