Leon Isaac Kennedy played several small-time parts before pushing his way into a starring roles in features custom-made for him. By the time he did start getting lead roles, the blaxploitation movement’s popularity already stalled out and was parked on the side of the highway. That didn’t stop him from teaming up with blaxploitation director James Fanaka and making the top-grossing independent film of 1979, Penitentiary.
Prior to making Penitentiary, Fanaka’s claim to fame was making a little film called Welcome Home, Brother Charles, in which the lead character seeks revenge on the white cops who wrongfully beat him and sent him to prison several years earlier. He gets his revenge by choking people out with his giant voodoo penis. You read that right, no need to go back and do it again. He chokes people whit his penis.
Penitentiary was a little more mainstream. Kennedy made Too Sweet one of those tough characters with a vulnerability to them. He also didn’t hold back on whipping ass either.
Depending on your definition of blaxploitation and what qualifies for it, Penitentiary might be the period on the era. Many stop considering films as being true blaxploitation films released this late in the 1970s. It wasn’t heavily promoted as a race-driven movie, at least as far as i can tell, but it does explore some racial issues in the film. The Fanaka connection really pushed us to lean toward considering this to be a blaxploitation film, and as such, it’s a damn good one.
Kennedy would also write and produce several projects, before focusing on pursuits outside entertainment in the early 1990s.
Why We Love and Respect Him: When Leon Isaac Kennedy is spotted in a blaxploitation movie. you can rest assured there is going to be a fight scene right around the corner. Knowing about guys like this are essential to finding the best places to pause and go to the bathroom.
Best Known For: Fighting
Blaxploitation Role Call:
Hammer (1972) as Bobby Williams: Small role Kennedy doesn’t even list on his own website. Haven’t watched Hammer in a while, and can’t remember specifically who Bobby Williams is, and what role he has in the film.
Mean Johnny Barrows (1976) as Pvt. Pickens: This is such a brief appearance in a Vietnam flashback scene it’s surprising the character even has a name.
Fighting Mad aka (Death Force) (1978) as McGee: McGee, Morelli, and Russell, left Vietnam with an ass-load of gold. They sell it quick in the Philippines and head back to the US with a boat-load of cash. On the way home, McGee and Morelli decide Russell is just dead weight. They cut his throat and throw him overboard. Russell ends up on an island with two japanese soldiers from WWII who don’t know the war is even over. The soldiers teach Russell the way of the samurai, and he uses those skills to get revenge when he finally gets back to the States.
Penitentiary (1980) as Martel ‘Too Sweet’ Gordone: Too Sweet gets framed for a murder he didn’t commit and is sent to prison. There he has to fight off thugs and rapists to save his own ass. Already having to fight his way through a prison term, when he hears about an early parole reward for winning an underground boxing tournament organized by prison officials, it’s a no-brainer he’s going to get involved. The film also had two sequels starring Kennedy.
Kennedy currently operates Kennedy Healing Love Ministries.
Neat quote from his website:
“Kennedy explains, ‘It’s not that I’m so talented; it’s what I had to do just to be able to generate work. Back then, there was no luxury or opportunity of being able to go from film to film as there is now – so I generated my own.’”
Trailer to James Fanaka’s 1975 weirdo movie, Welcome Home Brother Charles