Legendary filmmaker Jamaa Fanaka was found dead in his apartment in South Los Angeles on Sunday, April 8th, 2012. His daughter Tracey L. Gordon said that the cause of death has not been determined. Fanaka was 69 when he passed.
Fanaka made his name in Hollywood during his time as a student at the UCLA film school in the 70’s when he wrote, produced and directed his first three feature films. The remarkable thing was that he financed the movies with competitive academic grants and funds from his parents. Fanaka is known for his movies: “Welcome Home, Brother Charles” (1975), “Emma Mae” (1976) and “Penitentiary,” which were both critical and box-office successes.
Born Walter Gordon on September 6, 1942 in Jackson, Miss., Fanaka moved to Compton with his family when he was 12. After he transferred to UCLA from Compton College, he changed his name to Jamaa Fanaka, which is based on the Swahili words meaning, “together we will find success.” He graduated summa cum laude from UCLA in 1973 and earned his master’s from the film school 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 revered today.
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 television, “Emma Mae” and “Penitentiary” in their original aspect ratios.
His latest project was a documentary titled “Hip Hop Hope”, which profiled underground hip- hop culture.
Known as a passionate person and a natural born leader, Fanaka was the founder of the Directors Guild of America’s African American Steering Committee.
In 1999, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s decision to dismiss Fanaka’s race-discrimination lawsuit suit against the Directors Guild in which he claimed it was part of a “conspiracy” to keep women and minorities out of the industry.
And in 2002, the 9th Circuit upheld a district court decision to dismiss Fanaka’s race discrimination lawsuit filed against the major film studios and networks.
Besides his daughter Tracey, Fanaka is survived by his other children, Michael, Katina and Twyla; his parents, Robert Gordon Sr. and Beatrice; two brothers, Robert Jr. and Joseph; a sister, Carmen Sanford; and nine grandchildren.