"Penitentiary bursts with energy and emotion . . . Fanaka creates a world of overwhelming sexual tension and constant danger." (Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times)
Jamaa Fanaka's raw and violent indictment of prison life is a masterpiece of Urban Cinema and was the most successful independent film of 1980 with a box office of over $13,000,000. The film, a potent combination of Blaxploitation prison movie and social commentary, busted genres and galvanized audiences from the art houses to the inner city, becoming the cornerstone of urban independent film for generations to come.
The film, which spawned two sequels, tells the story of Martel Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy in his first film role) who, while hitchhiking, gets into a fight with two bikers over a prostitute. One of the bikers dies, and Martel finds himself in prison with the moniker "Too Sweet" because of his love of candy bars. Soon he is hardened but pragmatic inmate who joins the prison boxing team in an effort to secure an early parole.
Standing in his path is Jesse Amos (Donovan Womack, Secret Agent OO Soul), an old rival and leader of the prison's most violent gang. After a fight lands Too Sweet and Jesse in solitary confinement, Jesse kills Too Sweet's best friend, then wins the prison's heavyweight boxing crown, positioning himself for the coveted early release. With his route to parole blocked, Too Sweet confronts the injustice and challenges Jesse to a fight to the finish in the film's brutal and shocking climax.