Monday, March 31, 2008

Black Mama, White Mama (USA, 1972)

One of Pam Grier's early name-making exploitation projects, Black Mama, White Mama is less a true Blaxploitation film than simply another convoluted spin on the ever-popular women-behind-bars genre. Indeed, Ms. Grier is about the only truly black person to appear in this female take of The Defiant Ones (1958), and if this flick doesn't get as much press as some of the other films she made back in the 70s, it's probably because this film isn't really as good as some of the true Blaxploitation classics she was to made around the same time (Coffy (1973), for example).
Director Eddie Romero, better known outside of the Philippines for cheaply cheesy and entertaining trash horror films such as Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968), Brides of Blood (1968) and Beast of Blood (1971) has since become a respected filmmaker on the islands, and in Black Mama, White Mama he displays a professional hand that neither helps nor hurts the film. The real problem with the film is the script: while it is indeed sleazy and violent enough, it nonetheless gets lost in an excess of subplots. By the time it meanders to its surprisingly depressing finale, the viewer is more or less ready to for the movie to end.
The first half of the Black Mama, White Mama is definitely aimed at the fans women-in-prison films and begins with a bus transporting new inmates to the prison. Among the new arrivals are Lee Daniels (Pam Grier), a street-wise hooker, and Karen Brent (Margaret Markove), a rich girl gone revolutionary, both of whom have their own reasons for wanting to escape: Lee has a stash of hidden cash and wants to blow the island (and her pimp Ernesto (Zaldy Zschornack), while Karen needs to meet up with some arms dealers that are bringing in the fire power needed for a successful revolution. In no short order Black Mama, White Mama dishes out the required lesbian warden (Laurie Burton), group shower scene, lesbian guard (Lynn Bordon) that likes to masturbate as she watches the babes shower through a hole in the wall, a food fight in the mess and naked punishment in the "hot box." (Regrettably, we don't actually get to see a lot of Ms. Grier's attributes in their prime; after the initial scenes at the prison, the extensive female toplessness that follows leans heavily towards the Filipino side.) Soon Lee and Karen are chained together in bus on its way to a maximum security prison across the island, but the interracial duo manage to make their escape — and kill the lesbian guard — when the bus is ambushed. The dynamic duo argue, fight, dress up as nuns, run and bicker straight into each other's hearts as they are pursued by island police, Karen's revolutionary compatriots, Lee's pissed-off pimp and a bounty hunter (an always excellent Sid Haig). Everything culminates as everyone meets up for a big showdown on the Filipino docks and a surprise ending...
Black Mama, White Mama has its moments and is definitely worth watching at least once, especially for fans of 70's sleaze, Blaxploitation or Pam Grier. That said, the film is hardly a classic of any of the genres it belongs to and doesn't move as quickly as it should. It is the Miller Lite on a shelf of Czech and German beer: You know what you're getting and it does serve its purpose, but if you can have a choice amongst many, why choose it?

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