EMMA MAE (a.k.a. Black Sister’s Revenge) 1975 director: Jamaa Fanaka; starring: Jerri Hayes
When you sit down to watch a Jamaa Fanaka film you have to know there’s more going on than meets the eye. On the surface Fanaka makes films that some people might argue look a bit like crap–technical ineptitude, bad acting, and outrageousness are the norm in the world of Fanaka. But under the surface of killer penises, crack smoking midgets, and ghetto airforce avengers there’s always a much deeper message. Finding that message ain’t always the easiest thing to do; but if you ain’t havin’ fun tryin’, then there’s something wrong with yo’ brain.
Fanaka is best known for his PENITENTIARY series, which included characters with names like Too Sweet, Half Dead, Seldom Seen, and Midnight Thud (a crack smoking midget, who watches porn, and spouts philosophy). Fanaka’s first film is the legendary cult hit WELCOME HOME BROTHER CHARLES (known as SOUL VENGEANCE on video), the story of a guy with a giant killer penis, that Fanaka wrote, produced and directed his senior year at UCLA. EMMA MAE is Fanaka’s second film, which he made to complete his master’s thesis. The film cost $250,000 to produce, and the money came from grants from the American Film Institute and UCLA’s Black Studies Center.
Fanaka managed to tone the craziness down a bit with this film, a ghettorific drama about a young countrified girl from Mississippi named Emma Mae (Hayes) who comes to live with family in Los Angeles. Emma quickly falls for Jesse, a pill-poppin’ loser, who finds himself in jail after whoopin’ on some cops. Now Emma is faced with raising bail money for the man she loves (let’s forget she’s only known him about a minute or two). First Emma starts a car wash, complete with belly dancers (gotta love that Fanaka), to raise the needed cash. Unfortunately, the cops quickly shut the operation down, leaving Emma Mae no choice but to form a gang and rob a bank. With her man out of jail things should end happily ever after, but then this is a Jamaa Fanaka film – the same man who gave us giant cocks strangling evil honkys. So it should come as no surprise that our heroine catches her old man in bed with some other chick, and then proceeds to beat his ass like a runaway slave. That’s right, homegirl beats homeboy’s ass like she was a member of the LAPD. Emma emerges a new, stronger, and more independent woman, ready to take on new challenges, and whoop more ass.
Despite all the flaws that can be found in this film (and believe me when I say they run the gamut), EMMA MAE is a film that works. The underlying themes of black empowerment, and the personal growth and liberation of black women are all there under the surface, just waiting for someone to notice them. We actually get to see Emma grow and evolve as a person, which was something rare for black female characters to do back in the day. There is sense of honesty and compassion that shines through, giving the film a sense of reality that many blaxploitation era films lack. For all her ass kickin’, gun totin’ badassosity, Emma is nothing like Foxy Brown or Cleopatra Jones – she’s someone we’ve all known in our lives. The people look real, they aren’t glamorous stars, just plain old folk Fanaka got off the street. And then there’s Jamaa’s script, which despite some unconvincing delivery from time to time, has dialog that sounds like the way black people really talk (or at least more like the way black people talk than what we normally get to see).
EMMA MAE (which is available on video as BLACK SISTER’S REVENGE), like all of Jamaa Fanaka’s films, needs to be watched with more than just casual viewing, otherwise you will miss some of what’s below the surface. Fanaka is a true genius filmmaker, whose work has long gone ignored and unappreciated. Of course the fact that he might have been insane doesn’t help his case – but that don’t mean you shouldn’t watch his movies, which are always entertaining.