Look…up on the screen! Is it a Blaxploitation picture? Is it women in prison flick? Or is it simply a jungle adventure film? It’s Black Mama, White Mama, which means it’s actually all three genres wrapped up in one!
While women in prison films go back to the 1930’s and began to gain momentum in the early 1950’s in America, it wasn’t until Jess Franco’s infamous film, 99 Women, was released and became a hit in 1969 the W.I.P. subgenre really gained traction. Not long after Franco’s release, Roger Corman made a multi-picture deal in the Philippines and, in rapid succession released The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, and The Hot Box, all low-budget prison pictures set in the jungle. Along with other features such as Women in Cages, the W.I.P. films had nearly run their course in just a handful of years. At the same time, Blaxploitation was beginning to pick up steam with popular early releases such as Cotton Comes to Harlem, Shaft, Superfly, and Coffy. Meanwhile, jungle movies were also the “in” thing and could be made fast and cheap in the Philippines, so it was natural to mix these three elements in an attempt to make the ultimate exploitation film.
Starting out as a typical W.I.P. film, the main characters are introduced as they enter the prison: Lee Daniels (Pam Grier) is a wily troublemaker jailed when she was implicated in a drug bust. She wants to break out because she’s been skimming money from her sleazy boss, Vic (Vic Diaz), and she wants to make good her escape with the money before he gets wise and comes looking for her. Karen Brent (Margaret Markov) is a revolutionary jailed for political reasons. She, too, wants to make her escape so she can complete a deal to supply guns to her militant group so they can continue to wage war against the establishment. The opening few scenes perfectly establish the prototypical W.I.P. flick. We are treated to lines of nude women being “processed” for imprisonment, a ridiculous shower scene (these are the happiest prisoners I’ve ever seen), some voyeurism by the lesbian matron, and catfights. There is a great deal of tension between Lee and Karen who both want to escape, but for very different, selfish reasons. There is also considerable sexual tension as the matron is turned on by Lee who rebuffs her come-ons while Karen readily submits to the matron in a bid to get out early. This only widens the gulf between the two prisoners and they quickly become enemies. Meanwhile, the warden, who is jealous of both prisoners hatches a plot to get rid of them so she can have the matron all to herself. She manages to get the two sent to a maximum security prison, loading them—chained together at the wrists—into a bus for the transfer.
This leads to a change of themes in the film as the two manage to escape during the trip with Karen’s guerrilla friends attach the prison bus. While the guerrillas fall short of bringing Karen back to the group, they are successful in springing her from the bus. Though the two women are on the run across the Philippine countryside, they aren’t totally free as they remain shackled to each other by a heavy chain. To make things worse, Karen needs to get to the mountains to meet up with her friends while Lee has plans to head to the coast and her stolen money before it’s too late. This naturally causes a great deal of conflict between the black mama and the white mama.
Pursued by the prison guards, the guerrillas, a sleazy drug pusher, and Ruben the bounty hunter (Sid Haig), the girls must learn to work together it they ever plan on escaping the jungle—and each other—before being caught and returned to prison.
This all makes for an exhilarating chase film full of sex, violence, and comedy. With an original story by Joe Viola and Jonathan Demme, the creative team behind Angels Hard as They Come and The Hot Box, and directed by veteran Filipino director Eddie Romero, Black Mama, White Mama overcomes its low-budget origins and succeeds as a fast, fun adventure flick. Viola and Demme do an admirable job creating a unique film that meshes several popular 70’s subgenres. While the pair create a typically standard jungle chase film as ordered by Corman, the script is elevated by some very colorful characters as well as some (very) off-color humor. For example, there is a funny scene when Sid Haig’s character, Ruben, humiliates two government officials by forcing them to remove their trousers and comparing their “equipment.” Ruben announces that one man is a solid “eight” while his supervisor, a high-ranking official, is merely a “three-and-a-half.” In another hilarious scene, the guerillas discover a dog wearing Karen’s panties around its neck. The leader of the guerrillas immediately recognizes the panties as Karen’s, prompting a subordinate to ask how he knows, “…by sight or by smell.” Genius, I tell you!
Romero further enhances the colorful characters found upon the pages of the script with some inspired casting. Pam Grier, fast becoming a star of action films of the time, and relative newcomer and blonde bombshell Markov chew up the scenery whether clothed or not. Sid Haig is flamboyant as a country-and-western gangster who enjoys torturing and humiliating the government officials as much as he enjoys a roll in the hay with some of the local girls. Vic Diaz, another mainstay of these types of pictures, simply has remarkable range. He’s equally convincing whether playing a flamingly gay prison guard or a slimy drug pimp who likes to have his nipples licked—the latter character in this particular film. Tons of other veteran character actors who starred in many of these Filipino jungle flicks are present in this one as well.
Romero, who won many awards over the years for his prestige pictures, is a solid director who was sometimes hampered by budgetary constraints. Nevertheless, he managed to produce several films that have become cult classics just for their sheer fun if not necessarily for their quality, including Mad Doctor of Blood Island, Beast of the Yellow Night, The Woman Hunt, The Twilight People, and Savage Sisters. These films are all remembered decades later, as is Black Mama, White Mama because Eddie was able to transcend his budgets to create fun and exciting films that produced a bang even without many bucks. In the end, Black Mama, White Mama is a vastly entertaining mixture of several exploitation subgenres made a many talented individuals both in front of as well as behind the camera.
Arrow Video USA has released a winning Blu Ray + DVD combo package that includes many special features. There are new interviews with Markov and Haig, which are both entertaining, as well as a previously unseen interview with director Romero, who is sadly no longer with us, along with the original movie trailer. An audio commentary featuring filmmaker Andrew Leavold (The Search for Weng Weng) is also available, but is a bit uneven. Leavold is knowledgeable and agreeable enough but spends a bit too much time announcing the action on screen instead of giving actual commentary or film analysis. Available now, you can order from Amazon or directly from Arrow at: http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa