Enjoyably trashy Pinoy “women
in prison”/THE DEFIANT ONES clone mash-up. Arrow Films has released BLACK
MAMA, WHITE MAMA, the 1972 indie from Four Associates (released in the States
by American International Pictures in January, 1973), directed by Filipino B-movie
legend Eddie Romero, co-written by Jonathan Demme, and starring Pam Grier and
Margaret Markov (both talented, both nude, both gorgeous), Sig Haig, Eddie Garcia,
Vic Diaz, Lynn Borden, Laurie Burton, Alfonso Carvajal, and Zaldy Zschornack.
Not the equal of similar — and better known — Filipino-based WIP
exploiters like THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE, BLACK MAMA, WHITE
MAMA still delivers the requisite quotas of guns, bloodletting, and T &
A to satisfy 1970s drive-in fare aficionados. This two disc Blu-ray and standard
DVD combo release offers bright, clean, colorful HD widescreen transfers and
punchy original mono audio tracks, along with some sweet, sweet extras, including
new interviews with Markov and Haig, a previously unseen archival interview
with Romero, and a fun full-length commentary track with Aussie filmmaker Andrew
A steamy, tropical island somewhere near the Philippines. A prison bus, headed towards the euphemistically-named “Women’s Rehabilitation Center,” carries future rivals and friends Lee Daniels (Pam Grier, FOXY BROWN, COFFY) and Karen Brent (Margaret Markov, RUN, ANGEL, RUN, THE HOT BOX). Lee is a prostitute who didn’t do nothing to nobody but work for the island’s biggest drug dealer, repulsive pimp Vic Cheng (Vic Diaz, DAUGHTERS OF SATAN, SAVAGE SISTERS). Having stolen $40,000 dollars from Vic, Lee’s only thought is breaking out of prison and getting the hell off that island. Rich-girl Karen is a converted revolutionary, working with island rebel Ernesto (Zaldy Zschornack, BATANG PIYER, FIGHTING TISOY) to free the people from their oppressive shackles. She has to bust out soon in order to facilitate a crucial shipment of weapons for her comrades, the outgunned insurgents. Unfortunately, hot blonde prison matron Densmore (Lynn Borden, TV’s HAZEL, WALKING TALL) doesn’t want either of these new meats to go anywhere anytime soon. When forced seduction doesn’t work on Lee, then cooperative sex with scheming Karen is just fine for Densmore...even if Densmore’s understanding, butch lover Warden Logan (Laurie Burton, TICKLE ME, MY FRIENDS NEED KILLING) cynically disapproves. After an increasingly fractious Karen and Lee are locked in a sweat box, their transfers to the city for torturous interrogations are approved. Lucky for them that Ernesto and his merry band hit the prison convoy, causing a distraction for the chained-at-the-wrists Lee and Karen to escape into the jungle. Now, the two scrapping, spitting hellcats must learn to cooperate as they’re pursued by Ruben (Sid Haig, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES), cowboy shirt-and-hat-wearing thug hired by corrupt cop Captain Cruz (Eddie Garcia, SABOTAGE, DEADLINE AGOSTO 13).
One of two knock-offs of the iconic Stanley Kramer 1950s racial chase drama THE DEFIANT ONES that American International released in 1972-3 (the other being the delirious THE THING WITH TWO HEADS, with Ray Milland and Rosey Grier), BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA was co-produced by former AIP matinee star John Ashley (BEACH PARTY, TV’s THE A-TEAM). Ashley’s Four Associates production company (with co-owner Eddie Romero) had been making bank shooting and starring in low-budget horror and action exploiters in the Philippines, where the local movie crews worked cheap, fast, and extremely well. Romero/Ashley titles like THE MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND, BEAST OF BLOOD, and BEAST OF THE YELLOW NIGHT were successful at U.S. drive-ins at the same time that Roger Corman-released “women in prison” efforts like THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE, both from director Jack Hill, started cleaning up at the ozoners as well. And as with most exploitation numbers, imitation was the sincerest form of making a quick buck. BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA’s mix of WIP and blaxploitation plays pretty tame by today’s standards, even though it was shot during a brief little limbo period in the Philippine movie history timeline, right after native screens started loosening up with its depictions of sex and violence, and right before President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1973, which included a tighter censorship role over movies, all of which were deemed “propaganda.”
Though now not nearly as charged an exploitation experience, credit is due BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA because it moves and it moves quickly, setting up the plot’s basic situation cleanly and efficiently while just getting on with the whole thing. Within the first few minutes, director Romero’s uncluttered, TV-efficient direction lets us understand who the protagonists are, what their basic conflicts are...and most importantly how they look naked in the showers (the movie’s horniest PG-rated scene, helped by Borden’s lust-crazed masturbation as she spies on the prisoners through a peep hole). There are a few interesting twists on the standard “women in prison” conventions in H.R. Christian’s (ACT OF VENGEANCE, KING OF THE MOUNTAIN) script, from a story by Joseph Viola (ANGELS HARD AS THEY COME, THE HOT BOX) and Jonathan Demme (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, CRAZY MAMA). Unlike many WIP victims, Grier and Markov are certainly not innocents locked away in prison; even though Grier says she didn’t do anything this time, she’s a known prostitute and thief, while Markov is a gun-running revolutionary, also well-known to the authorities. They both understand what the end game could be for their activities: incarceration. And they’re not “preyed upon” by rapist guards. Grier doesn’t sound adverse to getting it on with Borden, but she doesn’t want to be forced into it (when asked by Borden is she “indulges,” Grier carefully answers, “When I feel like it,” before Borden tries the hard-sell: smacking her around with a black leather glove). And Markov doesn’t hesitate sleeping with Borden (off camera) if it will help her escape (indeed, Grier seems pissed Markov gave in so quickly...which Markov assumes is jealousy).
Rather quickly, though, BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA shows it’s not all that interested in the whole WIP framework, anyway. For a prison with apparently only one section of high brick wall at the front entrance (you couldn’t just...walk out the back?), it’s a fairly laid-back affair in there for fans of the genre: just an extended group shower (complete with laughy grab-ass play with a garden hose), an aborted food fight, off-camera sex, and an obligatory sweat box scene. Oh, yeah — and some incoherent jungle clean-up (the glum, sweaty prisoners, out in the middle of a field, are barely whacking at isolated clumps of grass...just the way you used to suffer through it when your old man had you on yard duty). Interesting characters like Aussie tramp Ronda (Wendy Green) are dropped, along with the intriguing notion that Grier may be a lesbian (that might have added a fascinating layer to the second half of the movie when she’s chained to Markov, but unfortunately it’s never developed). Even worse, solid, interesting villains Borden and Burton are zapped right before their character build-ups pay off; they have a weird S&M violent/caring relationship that could have jacked up the movie’s kink quotient, had it been elaborated on (and how cool would it have been to have them join Haig and Garcia in the bush to hunt down the girls...particularly after dull Zschornack and his atrociously-attired revolutionaries prove to be so tiresome).
Instead, BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA turns into a zippy if occasionally ungainly chase meller, with undernourished revolutionary undertones added for superficial color. The subplot involving copper Garcia sexually blackmailing officious prick Carvajal with a pretty hooker is nicely achieved, getting a boost of energy when Haig is introduced as Garcia’s tracking dog. Haig, wearing outlandish Western-swing attire and snapping his fingers — “off beat,” as one of his henchmen kindly offers — to a transistor radio playing country music, is raring to go here, and as usual, he walks away with whatever scene he’s in. It doesn’t even matter if some of his bits are obvious comedy filler, such as his three-way romp with a couple of sisters, or his inspection-by-gunpoint of Garcia’s and Carvajal’s junk (you can just tell this is yet another scene that video store clerk Tarantino memorized and internalized for his own later “homages” [rip-offs]). They’re funny, so they work, and they make up for the rather surprisingly underutilized Vic Diaz, whose few scenes as the languid, perverse pimp Vic Cheng — you won’t forget his sweaty, hairy belly getting licked by that poor naked girl — promise so much more than what we’re ultimately given here (he should have been in the field, too, all perspiring and stressed and put-out at having to exert himself for something other than personal pleasure).
By the time BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA winds down, we don’t care too much that the whole socio-political dynamic initially set up between Grier and Markov has been junked. SPOILER ALERT! If we believed earlier that plain old survivor Grier meant it when she told strident, impassioned political rebel Markov, “Some jive ass revolution don’t mean shit to me!”, we at least expected Grier to come around and fight with her friend, if not for the revolution during the finale...but she doesn’t. She safely skedaddles away while everyone gets blown up. It’s a selfish act that doesn’t make sense when you consider how much effort was put forth making these frenemies into true friends (nor do we buy cynical Garcia’s rueful, Bogartian contemplation of all the end-game carnage, when previously he’s only been shown as an emotionless manipulator and blackmailer). But after all, BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA wasn’t really meant to “be about something,” anyway, despite any writers’ or director’s pretensions to the contrary. It was really designed as a dirty-minded actioner with lots of T & A fetish shots (all that grappling and ‘rasslin’ with the gorgeous leads in their panties) and guns firing off, and lewd, sardonic jokes as counterpoint to the mayhem, all to be enjoyed through the fogged windshield of a ’72 Chevy Impala. And on that level...BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA succeeds.
The Blu-ray MPEG-HD 1080p 1.85:1 widescreen transfer for BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA looks remarkably crisp and bright. Grain may be a little heavy in some of the daylight skyline areas, but image fine detail is impressive (you can count the pores in Haig’s face), colors are vibrant and true, depth is solid, contrast mostly okay (a few places looked a bit hot). The uncompressed PCM split mono audio track has a hefty re-recording level, and is quite clean, with barely discernible hiss and no pops this reviewer noticed. English subtitles are available. The extras for this dual Blu-ray/standard DVD release (both discs have the same bonus features) are solid. First, Aussie filmmaker Andrew Leavold (THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG) has one of the better commentary tracks I’ve heard in a while — finally we get someone who sounds like they actually like the movie and genre he’s talking about. Thankfully, Leavold doesn’t go into the minutia of BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA’s production; he just sorta grooves along with the movie, pointing out elements and scenes he likes while giving solid background on Pinoy moviemaking and all the actors. Nicely done, and when he gives an amused-but-sincere shout-out to Markov — “And Margaret, if you’re listening...I love you,” — you know you’re listening to a movie lover first, and historian second.
Next up are two new interviews, conducted exclusively for Arrow in September, 2015, with Margaret Markov (“White Mama Unchained,” 13:59), and Sid Haig (“Sid Haig’s Filipino Adventure,” 15:49). Markov, looking beautiful as ever, is well-spoken and articulate as she runs down her career resume, giving insight into director/actor Jack Starret (“good director, sweet man”), Roger Vadim (“not good with actors,”), and Rock Hudson (“a gentleman”), among others. Interestingly, she states she preferred the cheap indie productions to her more mainstream studio projects, while her obvious pride for her acting efforts is sincere and quite charming (I had no idea she was married to former Corman alum Mark Damon — by the looks of that fab room, those two did pretty well moving into movie exhibition and producing). Soft-spoken, thoughtful Haig is equally interesting as he gives detailed information on what it was like to shoot movies in the Philippines (no toilets on location, vipers at every turn, duck embryo dinners, and rats big enough to carry off kittens were apparently the price paid for cheap shoots with expert local crews). Lots of fun stories here (Romero always picking up a check, working with Grier and Markov) as the apparently ageless Haig states the Philippines were like his second home. Next up is an archival interview with director Eddie Romero (“The Mad Director of Blood Island,” no date given, 14:36), conducted apparently by an unseen Leavold. The video is spotty and contrasty, and the sound frequently bad (sometimes the added music is louder than Romero...until his dog starts barking in the background). But Romero is pretty funny as he laughs his way through Leavold’s questions — clearly this is a director who fondly remembers his career (he remembers Ashley — “We had a lot of fun. He was a player,” — as well as working with Coppola on APOCALYPSE NOW, giggling at the memory of Marcos’ amazement that Coppola could get multiple Huey helicopters when the President couldn’t score one). Last, an original trailer for BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA is included (1:52), along with a photo gallery. (Paul Mavis)
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