Fight for Freedom!
Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone (Leon Isaac Kennedy) is a regular Joe out along the highway, hitchhiking. He gets picked up by a hot babe who turns out to be a mobile prostitute. She gets news about a client and pulls off at a roadside diner to meet the john, promising Too Sweet that she’ll lay him right after. Here they run afoul of a couple of racist bikers and Too Sweet ends up in a brawl with them. He kicks their asses but one of them accidentally dies, and Too Sweet gets sent to jail for the crime. Inside, he encounters a world he’s never seen before, full of power struggles, rape, and hopelessness. He joins the boxing team to learn more about how to defend himself and to help secure a quicker parole. Along the way, he makes a few friends and a few enemies, and in the end, he’s fighting in a ring for revenge and for his freedom. Can Too Sweet win both, or will he go down like so many others?
I saw this on cable in the early 80s, shortly after it came out. I remember really liking it but not actually remembering much of it other than the boxing and some nudity. I rewatched it and man, no wonder I grew up so weird. 13-year-old Kelly probably wasn’t ready for this. Penitentiary is one strange film and yes, there’s a lot to love here, but damn, they didn’t hold anything back. This is about as raw and unflinching as it gets. There’s prison rape and while they don’t really show it, they show the cruelty of the aftermath. There’s another scene where Too Sweet is supposed to get raped by his cellmate and it’s a brutal, bloody fight, full of sweaty, near-naked male bodies, blood, and seething heat. The acting is amateur but decent and it adds to the almost documentary-like feel. The story slides into strange detours, but they work to create this atmosphere of desperation combined with an almost fantastical world. These men live in their own reality, the outside world not touching them much at all. The boxing is decent but not flashy. I love the honesty of it, as these guys fight fairly well, but you can tell they are amateurs. Too Sweet is a great character, as are a few of the others, and you really root for him. Also, my man Chuck Mitchell (Porky!) plays the Warden. All in all, this is a really good, if despairing, exploitation flick.
Don’t come to this one for a good time. There’s a few laughs to be had, but mostly its gritty and grimy. You can feel the sweat and taste the tears. This is a film that does not flinch and you either have the guts and temerity to sit with it or you don’t. If you stick around, I think you’ll dig it, but it’s not an easy journey.