The Film: 2/5
Black Mama, White Mama starts out promisingly, as this sort of movie usually does, with a fresh batch of feminine fish arriving by bus at a backwater hoosegow staffed entirely by women (so you just know there will be at least one predatory lesbian on staff). The ladies disembark and head straight for the showers so they can drop trou and soap each other up while fueling the masturbatory whims of nasty head guard Densmore (Lynn Borden). Two prisoners – feisty prostitute Lee Daniels (Pam Grier) and troublesome revolutionary Karen Brent (Margaret Markov) – take to disliking each other intently right off the bat, so of course they get chained together and forced to flee the authorities on foot when the bus transporting them to a maximum security facility is ambushed by a band of Karen’s fellow freedom fighters dead set on breaking her out. Disguising themselves as nuns, our escapees strike a bargain to get Lee to a boat waiting to spirit her and the $40,000 she stole from her former employer, the loathsome pimp and drug lord Cheng (Vic Diaz), to safer havens. Standing between Lee and Karen and their freedom are Cheng’s thugs, a rival faction led by the cowboy Ruben (Sid Haig), and the local military playing one drug-swindling criminal organization against the other in order for both to be easily eliminated.
A garden variety women-in-chains exploitation flick that ceases to be worthwhile sleazy entertainment after its titular leads break out of their cushy Filipino gulag and go on the run, whereby it turns into an aimless extended chase with a confused plot, Black Mama, White Mama is its own worst enemy. By 1973, the year it was released, the women in prison subgenre of drive-in cinema had run its course, thus giving Filipino director Eddie Romero and screenwriter H.R. Christian (working from a story by Joe Viola and Jonathan Demme – yes, that Jonathan Demme) a good reason to get their heroines as far away from their confinement as possible and as quickly as they can. The obvious inspiration for the section of the story where Lee and Karen go on the run while chained together was Stanley Kramer’s 1958 film The Defiant Ones, but Black Mama, White Mama feels just content with switching the genders of the main characters without allowing the women to ever emerge as full-blooded personalities. Grier and Markov play their archetypes well, and Grier in particular explodes with two-fisted cool and sex appeal, in spite of the overburdened plot leaving them almost no time to develop a plausible bond.
Romero takes care to make sure his movie hits all of the marks to become a workable piece of grindhouse schlock; there’s plenty of bare female flesh and bloody squib hits to keep the viewer mildly engaged as the story meanders from one subplot to another and our heroines wander through the sweltering jungle looking for a way to break their literal chain of bondage. Sid Haig and Vic Diaz, no slouches when it came to livening up the most lackluster exploitation flick with a little charismatic greasiness, provide the convoluted crime story side of Black Mama, White Mama with the type of personality that only these actors to bring to their underwritten roles. Cinematographer Justo Paulino (who also shot Beyond Atlantis and Savage Sisters for Romero) does what he can to give the sparse sets and tropical locations color and visual presence. The funk-heavy score composed by Harry Betts (Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams) was sampled by Quentin Tarantino during the “House of Blue Leaves” segment of Kill Bill V. 1.
Arrow Video’s 1080 high-definition transfer of Black Mama, White Mama is presented in the film’s original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio and has been sourced from a new 35mm interpositive created with the participation of MGM. Details look better and more pronounced than ever before. Colors are balanced and authentic and a fine grain layer has been preserved to give the transfer a natural filmic texture. Print damage is non-existent. The uncompressed English PCM 1.0 mono track was assembled using the original 35mm mono DME printmaster mag and features dialogue that is mostly free of being swallowed up by the music mix, though sometimes that can be a problem due to the amount of lines recorded live on the set. Distortion is minimal and often discreet. English subtitles have also been included.
Bonus features are a cut above the no-frills U.S. home video releases and start off with an audio commentary from Andrew Leavold, the Australian filmmaker responsible for the 2007 documentary The Search for Weng Weng. Leavold had nothing to do with this movie so his comments well up strictly from the loving perspective…. which would explain why he often is content to merely watch the movie and describe the action with the nuance of a YouTube commenter. Occasionally he shares some trivia and critical insight, but you might miss them due to switching audio channels after tiring of his narration.
Next we have a trio of video interviews. “White Mama Unchained” (14 minutes) focuses on co-star Markov offering an informative overview of her acting career and experiences working on Black Mama, White Mama. “Sid Haig’s Filipino Adventures” (16 minutes), as the title implies, brings in the cult cinema acting legend to discuss the time he spent performing in various exploitation flicks shot in the Philippines and the hair-raising incidents that came with the jobs. He speaks fondly of Grier and her acting talent and shares an amusing story in regards to his surprising cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. “The Mad Doctor of Blood Island!” (15 minutes) is an archival interview with the late director (he died in May 2013) conducted by Leavold which allows the B-movie journeyman to talk about his storied career with a fair amount of honest recollections about the films he made and the changing nature of the business.
A still gallery containing mostly materials used for the advertising campaign (including posters and production stills) and the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes) close out the disc-based extras. Arrow has also included a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay on Black Mama, White Mama written by Temple of Schlock editor Chris Poggiali and a reproduction of A.I.P.’s original press book and a reversible cover sleeve with new art by Sean Phillips on the front and the original poster art on the opposite side.
Black Mama, White Mama makes a valiant and respectable attempt to be more than yet another slice of Filipino-lensed, women-in-chains sleaze cheese, but it loses its way big time once it abandons the prison setting and never quite figures out what kind of movie it really wants to be. Arrow Video has done a fine job with their Blu-ray presentation and extra features. If you have a sweet spot for B-movie entertainment that’s equally sweaty, sexy, bloody, and flat-out goofy, you could do worse. Much worse.