Emma Mae (1976) was Jamaa Fanaka’s second feature film and continues to investigate the themes of Black justice and community that were central to Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975) and would reoccur in in Fanaka’s most famous film Penitentiary (1979). Emma Mae, though essentially a character study, has a wide focus that allows Fanaka to develop secondary characters as a means of elevating the importance of community connections. This approach gives Emma Mae a naturalism and “true to life” urgency that is largely subtextual in most Blaxploitation films.
The titular character (played with remarkable sensitivity by Jerri Hayes) is a rough and tumble country girl who has moved to L.A. from Mississippi. Her courage and natural leadership skills are counterbalanced by a youthful naivete. Soon she’s in love with a jail bird which prompts her to organize her community to raise funds for his bail. Once white big whigs shut them down, Emma Mae turns to bank robbery. No sooner is her lover released than he’s fooling around with another woman, prompting Emma Mae to kick his ass.
Emma Mae is equal parts a film of Black empowerment and women empowerment. At one point the character of Big Daddy (Malik Carter) quiets a room of people so Emma can speak with the words “listen to a real woman”. Melodramatic notes like these punctuate major shifts in the narrative, recalibrating the viewer for the next step in Emma Mae’s growth and development. Fanaka is angry with society and the character of Emma Mae is his vessel for the thoughts and principles which surround and define that anger.
At once highly imaginative and brutally honest, the cinema of Jamaa Fanaka epitomizes the ideologies, aesthetically and politically, of the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers. The modes of Fanaka’s films serve an anthropological and activistic function simultaneously. The films of Fanaka’s colleague Charles Burnett differ in that his works do not present the viewer with highly stylized images of Black justice and retribution. Fanaka is unique, bridging the aesthetic worlds of traditional drama and grindhouse spectacle.