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Jamaa Fanaka, Leading LA Rebellion Film Movement Filmmaker, Dies At 69

Jamaa Fanaka, Leading LA Rebellion Film Movement Filmmaker, Dies At 69

Mourning the loss of my cinematic brother, Jamaa Fanaka who passed away yesterday. He is one of the LA Rebellion filmmakers – the only student to ever have made 3 feature films at UCLA and to also make money from them. He was a good soul, he will be missed, but earns his “secular immortality” (a term he came up with in my interview with him) with his films and his fight for better representation of Black directors with the DGA. Ashe, Jamaa!

Words I read this evening on Zeinabu Irene Davis’ Facebook page (thanks Brandon Wilson for alerting me to this).

That’s all the information that appears to be public as of the time of this post, so I’m sure more (specifically, the cause of his death) will be revealed soon.

Born Walter Gordon, Fanaka attended UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television (where he changed his name to Jamaa Fanaka – based on Swahili words meaning “together we will find success”), earning a BA in 1973 and an MFA in 1979.

It was there that Fanaka, and a group of young African and African American students also in the same program at UCLA formed what is now referred to as the L.A. Rebellion movement (or Los Angeles School Of Black Filmmakers), creating a unique cinematic landscape that is still very much reverred today.

It is also there, at UCLA, that Fanaka made films we’ve covered here on S&A like Emma Mae (1976) and Penitentiary (1979) – see Brandon Wilson’s reviews of both films (HERE & HERE) which screened during last fall’s “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema” retrospective at UCLA.

Penitentiary became the highest grossing independent film of 1979, and two sequels followed in 1982 and 1987.

In 2008, Turner Classic Movies spotlighted Fanaka’s work, airing, for the first time on TV, Emma Mae and Penitentiary in their original aspect ratios.

Fanaka was founder of the Director Guild of America’s African American steering committee in 1994; his latest project was a documentary titled Hip Hop Hope, which profiled underground hip hop culture.

I never did meet the man, but based on some of the exchanges he had with other readers and writers here on S&A, I’d say he was certainly quite the firebrand!

I’ll update this post as more details on his death are revealed…

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I was lucky enough to have met Jamaa while I was working at a gas station in Long Beach. He was the nicest dude, thrilled that I knew of his work. He even sold me a couple of DVD's of Penitentiary 1 & 2 on the cheap, signed them and all. I will never forget how humble and gracious he was.


i adored this great man.
he was my mentor, hero, and friend.

jamaa fanaka

i adored this great man

he was my mentor hero and my friend


James Madison

An inspiration. Thank you Mr. Fanaka.


Another Big As Shift in the Wind , along with actors/directors:Ossie Davis, Ivan Dixon & Hugh Robinson.
RIP, jamaa;-(

Patricia Taylor

I meet Jamaa 35 years ago on the taping of Emma Mae in the City of Compton in West Park…At the time i was 16 years old holding a baby my nephew Khiry (rip) and Jamaa said i caught the camera eye in several scenes of the movies.. I'm now 51 and i found Jamaa on My Space several years ago and sent him a message that i was the little girl in the movies holding the baby.We have been friends and in touch every since he would laugh and said i still looked the same i would laugh and say thanks knowing i had aged ..Jamaa invited me to the meet everyone from the cast of Emma Mae it was truly a Blessing .Jamaa i will miss your beautiful smile your phone calls and messages on facebook your truly a great friend love you and may you rest in paradise…


I love you Jamaa Fanaka. My sister and I had the pleasure of being in the cult film Penitentiary II and working closely with Jamaa lately as well. We designed the costumes for Mr. T and created our own characters "The Genie Girls" and Jamaa allowed us to soar. I will always love you for that Jamaa. I was introduced to you by my dear friend and mentor Ian Foxx, your buddy…Rest In Peace.

Charles David Brooks, III

We go a long way back from classmates, friends, and filmmakers when you were Walter Gordon (Jamaa Fanaka) and I as Charles David Brooks, III (Agya Yaw Abebrese). Our Friendship made History for Us and the People around Us. I thank the Creator for bringing most of Us Together from December 15 to 17, 2012. We stood on the stage one last time Together. See you in the Morning, FFL.


NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO….DAMN I will miss this brother. Seeing Penitentiary 2 as kid with my cousins and cheering when Mr. T beat the crap out of Ernie Hudson is one of my most beloved cinematic moments of childhood. We had to lie to my auntie and tell her we were going to see some G-rated piece of garbage, and when we got to the theater we had to stand on our tiptoes with a hard screwface (stifling giggles) to convince the ticket lady we were over 18 (I was 13). To this day I don't believe that lady thought we were 18, but I guess they weren't checking ID's in the Rochdale Projects in '81. One of the best times of my life as a kid. Rest in PEACE, Sir. My condolences to his fam.


Damn, I remember my mom's boyfriend sneaking my brother and me in to see Penitentary when it was in the theaters.

RIP Brother Fanaka


Black Sister's Revenge

watch that film at least once a year


R.I.P. to a groundbreaking and visionary filmmaker who knew how to think outside the box. He had some more projects planned, but sadly, he passed away abruptly, which shocked me. Appreciate those you admire while they're here, because you never know when they could just fade away in an instant. I'm sure other black filmmakers will live up to the legacy Fanaka left behind and continue to pay homage to him in their works. He was a one-of-a-kind man.


This is truly sad news to read. Mr. Fanaka's work brought many smiles to the faces of my family, especially "Emma Mae", a classic film in my opinion. Rest in peace.

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