Two Years Known, Three Years Gone: Jamaa Fanaka's Secular Immortality / by Samuel B. Prime

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I first met Walter "Jamaa Fanaka" Gordon on October 22nd, 2010. It was a Friday evening. UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater was screening his second feature film, EMMA MAE (1976), as a keen double feature with Rudy Ray Moore's THE HUMAN TORNADO (1976). Jamaa's film ran first. It was real, honest, unpretentious, and a major accomplishment. The story of a young, misunderstood Southern girl who comes to live in South Central Los Angeles, it is a story of survival, a coming-of-age story, and a story that no other American filmmaker was telling or has told. Back in '76, Jamaa was still a UCLA graduate student. This would be his second of three full-length feature films he directed while on campus. While his peers were finishing short subjects doomed to obscurity, here was a man on a mission to make a startlingly sincere, commercial motion picture - and to sell it. And that is precisely what he did, three times over, culminating in part one of his prison boxing epic PENITENTIARY, the film that he was never shy to remind friends and audiences alike was the highest grossing independent film of 1979. 

Between features, Jamaa was in the Wilder lobby selling DVD copies of his first four features. I was so impressed with EMMA MAE's remarkable sincerity and sweetness that I awkwardly introduced myself, only to excuse myself moments later as I ran out of the building, two blocks down the street to the nearest ATM, and withdrew enough money to purchase one of everything. When I returned out of breath, but with cash in hand, Jamaa made a quip about how he thought I might not come back. I made a gesture that meant something like, "but here I am." We both smiled. He signed every one of the four discs, three to me and one - EMMA MAE - to my father. I told Jamaa that I was going to send the film to my dad the very next day, which I did. We talked some more, he shook my hand, and said "we're gonna be friends-for-life, brother." To this day, EMMA MAE remains not only my favorite of Jamaa's works or the larger cross-section of films from UCLA's LA Rebellion movement, but among most films. 

One week later, Jamaa found me on Facebook - the first of many warm gestures that confirmed that he meant it when he said "friends-for-life." His message was simple: "thank you for your wonderful words of support for my motion picture, EMMA MAE." This initial outreach evolved into longer conversations online, on the phone, and occasionally in person. Once, Jamaa told me that my unwavering support and enthusiasm for his films and as a friend was "irreplaceably great." I melted when he told me that and the memory still gives me goosebumps. 

Jamaa loved to tell stories. He was an incredible raconteur. After all, he did it professionally as a filmmaker, but he also loved to hold court - especially with film students - and just watch them gradually lean forward, ever increasingly enraptured with every passing moment. Whether it was clubbing in Rio with his best friend Bobby (who, later in the story, he would reveal as Robert De Niro) or how the grotesque eight-foot prosthetic penis from WELCOME HOME, BROTHER CHARLES (1975) was rotting in his garage because you can't just list an eight-foot penis on Craiglist, Jamaa loved sharing himself and his memories with others. He was also as unapologetic as he was kind. Every time we met in person, he managed to steal something from me. On more than one occasion, that object was a black Sharpie marker. He was always giving autographs. I watched him do it. He was slick and he knew it. He was also coy, suave, and selfish in that way that only true filmmakers are - and I loved him for it.

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Jamaa expired on April 1st, 2012 - three years ago to the day. I only knew Jamaa for a little less than two years, but in what were his last he made an enormous impression on me as a human being who in every moment radiated life. Even in the face of complications with diabetes, he seemed to have boundless energy for films, filmmaking, and the next generation of directors. He also coined a term to describe the lasting quality of films and also the actors featured within: secular immortality. Forever young. Frozen in time. Eternal. He meant this initially about Jerri Hayes, who played the title character in EMMA MAE, but it has unquestionable broader applications. Like his films and the characters therein, Jamaa Fanaka is given to secular immortality. Friendship lasts at least two lifetimes and as long as I shall live, so too will Jamaa Fanaka be alive in my heart and mind.

Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon