1942 - 2012
Jamaa Fanaka was born Walter Gordon in Jackson, Mississippi; he discovered a love of filmmaking when his parents gave him a 8mm camera at age 11. The following year, his family moved to the Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton.
After four years in the Air Force, he entered UCLA's film school, where he changed his name to Jamaa Fanaka (based on Swahili words meaning "together we will find success"). A highly resourceful student, Fanaka pursued and received competitive grants that helped him achieve the singular distinction of writing, producing, directing and getting theatrical distribution for three features - WELCOME HOME, BROTHER CHARLES (1975), EMMA MAE (1976) and PENITENTIARY (1979) - while still enrolled in the program. Penitentiary became the highest grossing independent film of 1979, and two sequels followed in 1982 and 1987. He completed Street Wars in 1992.
Fanaka was founder of the Director Guild of America's African American steering committee in 1994, where he accused the industry of discriminatory employment practices toward women and minorities. A series of lawsuits between the DGA and the filmmaker resulted in their mutual separation, but Fanaka credits the controversy for later improvements in Hollywood's hiring practices.
In 2008, Turner Classic Movies spotlighted Fanaka's work and hosted the television premieres of Emma Mae and Penitentiary in their original aspect ratios.
Fanaka died in Los Angeles in 2012.
[Source: Films of the LA Rebellion, UCLA Film & Television Archive]