Fanaka was born Walter Gordon in Jackson, Mississippi. His family moved to Compton, California where he grew up.
He attended UCLA film school and during this time changed his name to Jamaa Fanaka which means “together we will find success” in Swahili. It was during his studies at the prestigious college that Jamaa Fanaka made his first three feature productions, “Welcome Home, Brother Charles” (1975), “Emma Mae” (1976) and the well-known film “Penitentiary” (1979), which was hailed by critics.
The film was such a success that Fanaka made sequels in both 1982 and 1987. Most of his productions were stories of true accounts of events happening throughout communities.
An activist in the film industry, Jamaa Fanaka filed suit against the Directors Guild of America for discrimination in the 1990’s. He believed that the organization had formed a conspiracy against women and minorities in the industry. However, the lawsuit was dismissed. Jamaa Fanaka died on April 1, 2012.