The Give and Take
By Adam Piron
There’s a moment early on in Jamaa Fanaka’s 1974 sophomore feature, Emma Mae, when the eponymous heroine rises up and clocks a heckler into near orbit at a party. It’s a hot-blooded reaction that comes out of nowhere and leaves an audience gasping for breath. This dramatic shift, something of a definitive trait within the filmmaker’s oeuvre, is Fanaka’s way of saying: “Quit laughing. You’re next.”
The narrative preceding this incident is markedly calmer, as the seemingly meek Emma Mae (Jerri Hayes), fresh off the bus from small-town Mississippi after the death of her mother, attends her first party in Compton, California. Her city cousins and their boyfriends begrudgingly let her play the fifth wheel and tag along, but not without deriding just how backwards and country she really is. Emma Mae rolls with it, and any culture shock she’s feeling remains well below the surface, until it all comes to a head.
At the party, the boyfriends’ scheme to unload her onto Jessie (Ernest Williams II), a slick ne’er-do-well who’s too blitzed to notice her rough, country edges. The unlikely couple hit it off from the get-go—but not before his wingman Zeke (Charles D. Brooks III) sees what’s up. As he loudly insults her in front of the other partygoers for sport, the world slowly grinds to a halt. The frame rate suddenly switches as we watch Emma Mae’s clean right hook slice through the air, colliding like a meteorite with her tormentor’s loud maw, effectively silencing it.
To the earlier point, it’s Fanaka’s signature move: priming an audience’s underestimation of his deceptively straightforward approach to genre, only to point out they’ve been in the deep end all along. One need only watch Welcome Home Brother Charles or any of the Penitentiary films to recognize a similar pattern. The underdog characters, initially placed as the butts of the film’s jokes, fight back, and as their resistance fast becomes no laughing matter, Fanaka takes a hard U-turn, questioning—and also causing the viewer to question—why anyone was laughing in the first place.
we watch Emma Mae’s clean right hook slice through the air, colliding like a meteorite with her tormentor’s loud maw, effectively silencing it.
Zeke learns his lesson. He also learns to keep his mouth shut as Emma Mae becomes an increasingly common presence in his clique once she and Jessie become an item. Things quickly go sideways for the new lovers when their relationship is put to the test after Jesse and Zeke get time for jumping a cop. Emma Mae, with all her grit and heart, does her best to raise bail for her man by rallying her new community to start a car wash to raise cash. The operation quickly and cruelly gets shut down by L.A.’s finest, leaving her with only one conceivable option left on the table: robbing a bank. She pulls it off with a small crew, and her beau is set free. Things, however, take a turn for the worse when, no sooner than he’s tasted freedom, she catches him fooling around with another woman.
When she confronts him about it, he demeans her for all her country traits and confesses that he was using her the whole time. Once more, Emma Mae goes in swinging and beats Jessie senseless. In a reversal of her arrival at the college party, he limps in humiliation back to an unsympathetic Zeke whereas Emma Mae departs in the embrace of her now sympathetic cousins. Fanaka leaves the audience with less of a portrait of a woman scorned, but more of an appraisal of a Black woman finding her strength both within herself and from her community.
Long before the descriptor came into wider use, Fanaka was an artist whose approach was informed by a kind of systems thinking: the theory that you cannot explain a phenomenon without thinking about how the interactions between different parts influence the behavior as a whole. Chief among his concerns were the systems that oppressed Black communities from both outside and within. Emma Mae was no exception. What seemingly starts as the tee-up for a Pygmalion-esque Blaxploitation tale about Jesse’s streetwise ways rubbing off on our heroine unfolds into a blistering critique on the discriminations brought on by urban-rural divides, colorism, toxic masculinity, racist policing, and the plight of those swept up in the tail end of the Second Great Migration. It’s a film that definitively centers a Black audience in the hopes of inspiring reflection and self-determined solutions by and for them. One need only look to Emma Mae’s bank job accomplice “Big Daddy” Johnson (Malik Carter) as he chides the other members of their crew as they’re on the verge of chickening out before the heist:
Now, y’all listen to this little lady—and get your hearts together. Talk about takin’ chances? What do you think you're doin’ every time you pick up a gun and get to so-called gang warring with your own people over turf? Somethin’ don't none of you own! Cause the white man owns it. That’s right. The white man owns every nook and every cranny. Every alley and every freeway. Every city and every goddamn swamp. The white man owns it. Why? Cause he got off of his ass and took it. Now, y’all want a piece of it? Well, the only way you gonna get is to get up off your asses and take it back!
Based in part on Fanaka’s own experiences of moving from rural Mississippi to Los Angeles as a teen, Emma Mae was the second feature he made while still a student at the UCLA Film School. His matriculation at the university took place during a notable era of the program: the L.A. Rebellion film movement. Also known as the LASBF (the Los Angeles School for Black Filmmakers), the movement was defined by a group of Black filmmakers who studied at UCLA’s film school from the late 1960s to the late ’80s, and who helped craft a Black cinema both outside and in opposition to Hollywood, led by figures including Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, and Haile Gerima.
Fanaka, somewhat of an outlier, was both intrigued by and willing to work within the Hollywood system; an unusual figure within the movement, he regularly worked with recognizable genre frameworks to reach a broader audience. He was successful in his approach, too. Not only did he write, direct, produce, and sell Emma Mae for distribution while still at UCLA (later released and retitled by International Pictures as Black Sister’s Revenge), he did the same the year before with Welcome Home Brother Charles (later released in 1975), and again with Penitentiary in 1979. An incredible feat by any measure, Fanaka’s first three-picture run as a student also holds the distinction as something unsurpassed before or since in UCLA’s history. Fanaka’s hard work paid off, with Penitentiary becoming the most financially successful independent movie of that year (made for a total cost of $600,000, it reportedly went on to gross $32M worldwide), but also with Fanaka seeing his cult status cemented as the film reaped the rewards of the onset of the VHS boom and frequent licensing by a new TV cable channel on the rise: HBO.
Fanaka went on to create two more entries in the Penitentiary franchise, with a fourth written that became mired in development hell. His filmography concluded with Street Wars (1992), a chimeric, South Central-set crime picture peppered by glider plane action sequences and musical numbers. His final effort, a documentary exploring underground hip hop culture, remained unfinished in the wake of his passing in 2012 due to complications with diabetes. True to form, Fanaka’s later years were spent speaking truth to power and shaking up another system. He put his money where his mouth was and spent much of his own fortune made from the Penitentiary films into a failed lawsuit against the Directors Guild of America, of which he was one of the only Black members, for what he saw as discriminatory practices. As retrospectives of the L.A. Rebellion and acknowledgements of its legacy became more frequent toward the end of his life, Fanaka was able to experience a new critical reappraisal of his work and by all accounts enjoyed the recognition, attending many of the screenings in the L.A. region. Much like his own films, Fanaka was never able to be put in a box—and never to be underestimated.
Adam Piron is a California-based filmmaker and programmer. He is the Director of Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program and a co-founder of the COUSIN Collective.