A tough prostitute named Lee (Pam Grier) and a revolutionary named Karen (Margaret Markov) are admitted to a tough women’s prison where they almost immediately clash. Packed off to a maximum security prison, their transport is ambushed by Karen’s guerrilla friends and the two escape into the Filipino jungle. Chained together and with differing escape plans, their clash intensifies as Lee wants to retrieve a stash of stolen cash to get her off the island and Karen wants to re-join her revolutionary group. Escape isn’t easy as they come up against a series of obstacles including a corrupt cop, a bounty hunter, a sadistic Drug Lord and guerrillas who threaten to turn everything upside-down. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
The Women in Prison exploitation subgenre, known colloquially as “WIP,” has existed in one way or another since at least the 1930s. As the practice matured, it tended to be encapsulated within the more acceptable confines of pulpy noir (John Cromwell’s Caged, 1950) and B-melodrama (Lewis Seiler’s Women's Prison, 1955). Strict censorship rules kept the salaciousness of lesbianism and sadomasochistic violence to a minimum, but the girl fights and subtextual perversions were certainly established. WIP really broke out during the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, when decency restrictions were lifted and a number of other exploitation subgenres were free to flood the grindhouse and drive-in markets. The new standard was set by the likes of Jess Franco’s 99 Women (1969), Lee Frost’s Love Camp 7 (also the first in a long line of WIP Nazisploitation movies, 1969), and Chih-Hung Kuei’s House of Bamboo Dolls. The subgenre exploded as the ‘70s carried on, eventually entering the pop culture zeitgeist in the form of spoofs (SCTV and Saturday Night Live both ran satirical sketches on the subject) and made-for-TV movies (specifically Donald Wrye’s hyper-controversial Born Innocent, 1974).
Meanwhile, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures began shooting cheap adventures and horror movies in the Philippines. Among these were maverick writer/director Jack Hill’s jungle WIP movies The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972), both of which featured a very young Pam Grier in supporting roles. Between the Hill movies (which you might note were released less than a year apart), Grier also appeared in Gerardo de León’s Corman-produced Women in Cages (1971). These films combined elements from the dissolving WIP subgenre with elements of the emerging blaxploitation wave, a subgenre Grier ended up fronting with movies like Hill’s Coffy (1973) and William Girdler’s Sheba, Baby. She completed her tetralogy (Steve Carver & Joe D'Amato’s The Arena  could be considered a sword & sandal spin on the WIP formula and it also co-starred Markov) with Eddie Romero’s Black Mama, White Mama in 1973 – a jungle WIP/blaxploitation variation on Stanley Kramer’s fugitive-on-the-run classic, The Defiant Ones (1958).
Romero was one of, if not the most prolific and respected Filipino film director of all time. He was a jack of all trades who worked in many genres, but enjoyed his greatest international success via a series of distinctive horror movies, including Beast of the Yellow Night (1971), The Twilight People (also featuring Grier, 1973), and his loosely connected “Blood Trilogy” – Brides of Blood (1968), The Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968), and Beast of Blood (1971). His movies are known for being cheap knock-offs and most of his fanbase seems to enjoy his work for its ‘so bad it’s good’ appeal. This is unfortunate, because scattered among his clunkers are some really well-constructed and effortlessly entertaining B-movies. Black Mama, White Mama doesn’t have quite the same appeal as those horror films, but might actually represent his best technical work on film. The deliberate compositions (the almost geometric use of foreground and background elements is fantastic) and competent action direction (even Grier and Markov’s super-awkward early act slap fight looks dynamic) aren’t really a surprise, but the solid performances are, considering Romero’s weak track record with English-speaking actors, the stiffness of the dialogue, and the fact that the cast is required to maintain a such a high level of campiness. It really says something about the quality of all of the acting (including cult favorites Sid Haig, Lynn Borden, and long-running Filipino super-villain, Vic Díaz) that Grier doesn’t run away with the whole movie.
H. R. Christian’s screenplay, which is credited as being derived from “an original story by Joseph Viola and Jonathan Demme” (yes, that Jonathan Demme, who made his directorial debut on another Corman-produced WIP, Caged Heat, the next year), takes the basic skeleton of Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith’s Defiant Ones script and “Mad-Libs” in a bunch of standard-issue exploitation concepts. This isn’t to say that Christian, Viola, and Demme were lazy, because mixing mandated WIP elements into an exploration of racial tensions as groundbreaking as Defiant Ones is actually quite clever. Through the haze of nudity, violence, ill-defined criminal subplots, literal dick-measuring contests, and satirically simplified portrayals of left-wing revolutionaries, Black Mama, White Mama is anchored in funny gags and reasonably potent social messages – ones that benefit from its no-nonsense exploitation prism. It doesn’t have the fortitude of, say, Hill’s Foxy Brown (1974), but its thematic value is rarely lost in the by-the-numbers stream of WIP clichés or Romero’s bombastic direction.
Black Mama, White Mama has been released on anamorphic DVD throughout America and Europe, but hadn’t popped up on Blu-ray until Arrow’s simultaneous US and UK release. This 1080p, 1.85:1 image was made from a new 35mm interpositive. The deck is stacked against Arrow – the movie was shot on the cheap and very quickly in harsh outdoor environments and uncontrollable light – but they’ve managed to power through and the results are pretty spectacular. It might even be the crown jewel in their Pam Grier collection. Details are sharper that I even considered possible from this particular movie, in that they are supported by very dynamic, but not ‘crushy’ blacks. The darkest sequences (usually interiors) feature some clumping sheets, but the overall grain appears accurate. Other print damage artifacts are minimal, usually consisting of little white spots and short scratches. The transfer’s strongest assets are its vivid and consistent colors. The rich greens of the Filipino jungle environments are way more lush than the comparatively brown backdrops of the DVD releases, flesh tones appear natural, and the pink & yellow costumes pop right off the screen.
Black Mama, White Mama’s original mono soundtrack is presented in uncompressed LPCM. The sound design is utilitarian and minimalistic, but the people that put it together knew what they were doing. Incidental noise and dialogue is pretty consistent for this type of production. The clarity of the heavily layered shoot-out sequences is particularly crisp. There are nominal distortion issues and accidental reverb effects, but no huge discrepancies between set-recorded and ADR’d dialogue. The track’s finest moments revolve around jazz composer Harry Betts’ eclectic and catchy score, pieces of which popped up in Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol 1. The big brassy moments burst without the high end buzzing or covering the more intricate percussive elements, which seem to be Betts’ speciality.
Commentary with Andrew Leavold – The Filipino film historian, director of documentaries The Search for Weng Weng (2007) and The Last Pinoy Action King (co-directed with Daniel Palisa, 2015), and associate producer of Mark Hartley’s Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010) delves deeply into the context and behind-the-scenes history of Black Mama, White Mama. Even WIP and Filipino-sploitation fans might find something new to learn here about the cast & crew or the intricacies of the Filipino film market. Though Leavold loses steam a couple of times, this is still a fact-filled companion piece to the movie, as well as the aforementioned documentaries.
White Mama (14:00, HD – A brand new interview with star Margaret Markov, who discusses her bit parts in studio pictures, her adventures in the Philippines during the filming of The Hot Box (1972) and Black Mama, White Mama, and meeting her husband, spaghetti western and Italian horror star Mark Damon, on the set of The Arena.
Sid’s Filipino Adventure (15:50, HD) – Another new interview, this one with Sid Haig. He sticks to talking about his working and personal relationships with Jack Hill, Grier, Markov, Vic Dias, and Romero, along with his further ‘tour of duty’ in Filipino-sploitation.
The Mad Director of Blood Island (14:40, HD) – This archival interview with Eddie Romero appears to have been recorded by Leavold and I believe parts of it were used for Machete Maidens Unleashed!. In it, the director is mostly questioned about his horror/exploitation films, his long working relationship with Roger Corman and American actor John Ashley, and his behind-the-scenes work on Apocalypse Now.
Image gallery (including a random image of Lynn Borden from the set of Frogs...)
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