Black Mama, White Mama (1973) ***
Now here’s a fine example of what I mean by the phrase, “exploitation ethos.” In 1958, United Artists released a movie called The Defiant Ones. It starred Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as a pair of chain-gang prisoners who go on the run together despite their mutual loathing, because together is the only way they can do anything— they’re chained to each other at the wrists. Naturally, the two men have learned to respect and even sort of like each other by the time the credits roll. The Defiant Ones won a bunch of awards and was nominated for even more, and in general was and remains highly regarded by practically everybody. Now flash forward fourteen years, to the end of 1972. Roger Corman’s New World Pictures is making scads of money with a loosely constituted series of women’s prison movies shot in the Philippines, and Corman’s old bosses at American International want a piece of that action for themselves. They commission a treatment from Corman protégé Jonathan Demme, who ingeniously gives them The Defiant Ones with girls. They cast Margaret Markov as Tony Curtis and Pam Grier as Sidney Poitier, then hand the whole thing over to Eddie Romero, who knows more about filming English-language sleaze in the Philippines than anyone. And because blaxploitation is at the height of its popularity (and because you can never go wrong by putting a little sex in your title), they call it Black Mama, White Mama.
Very little of this movie takes place actually inside the prison. There’s just enough time within the walls to give us a shower scene, a catfight, a failed attempt at lesbian seduction by Matron Densmore (Lynn Borden, of Frogs and Hellhole), an impliedly successful one a short while later, and a stint in special confinement for the two leads. (In an imaginative twist, they get sent to “solitary” together, and the punishment cell is not the hole, but the oven— a metal box about the size of a large refrigerator, set out in the middle of a field, hundreds of yards from the nearest shade. There’s just enough room inside for the two nude prisoners to avoid touching the scorching-hot sheet-steel walls if they stand back to back, completely motionless for the full duration of their confinement.) This is also enough time for us to learn a few things about our protagonists. First, Lee Daniels (Grier, from Scream, Blacula, Scream and Sheba, Baby) is a prostitute who was picked up on drug charges, although she doesn’t like to talk about that. Secondly, Karen Brent (Markov, of The Hot Box, who would team up with Grier again in The Arena) is part of the revolutionary front led by an idealistic young man called (appropriately enough) Ernesto (Zaldy Zshornack, also in The Hot Box). And finally, Lee and Karen do not like each other at all.
So naturally Warden Logan (Laurie Burton) pulls both of them aside for transfer to National Police headquarters in the capital. It’s obvious enough why the federales would want to talk to Karen, but their business with Lee seems a bit mysterious until it comes out that her pimp, Vic Cheng (Vic Diaz, from The Blood Drinkers and The Big Bird Cage), is the biggest crime lord in the country. Brent and Daniels are chained together and loaded aboard a bus otherwise occupied only by Logan, Densmore, and a couple of guards. It isn’t much of a security presence, but Logan has arranged for the bus to rendezvous along the way with a formidable National Police escort under the command of Captain Cruz (Eddie Garcia, of The Twilight People and The Beast of the Yellow Night). What nobody realizes is that Ernesto’s guerillas have gotten wise to the transfer, and are lying in ambush well short of the rendezvous point. The rebels quickly overwhelm Logan’s paltry detachment, but they are prevented from picking up Karen when Cruz and his convoy come to see what’s taking so long. Ernesto and his men withdraw to their stronghold in the hills, while the women flee the scene of the battle in the opposite direction.
Where, exactly, they’re going is a point of serious disagreement, however. Karen wants to get back to Ernesto as soon as possible, partly for the obvious reasons, but also because she had planned, before her incarceration, to orchestrate a major weapons deal between the rebels and a friend of hers in San Carlos. This contact of Karen’s sensibly won’t trust anyone but her, so it had looked like the deal was off once she got sent to prison. The meeting, however, was scheduled for two days from now, so there’s still time to make everything work— if Brent can reach San Carlos within the next 24 hours or so. Lee, on the other hand, has equally pressing business in Robles, on the other side of the island from San Carlos. Her last significant act before getting locked up was to steal $40,000 from Vic, with the aim of fleeing the country and getting out from under the mobster’s tyranny. She, too, has a friend waiting for her, a former employee of Vic’s who has since gone straight as a merchant skipper, and this friend has the 40 grand in safe-keeping. Simple self-preservation dictates that he not hang onto it forever, though. Were it not for the chain binding them together, the ladies could go their separate ways with their mutually incompatible escape plans, but as it stands, they’re stuck with each other. Either one of them agrees to let the other have it her way, or they find some means of getting quit of that chain in a hurry.
Meanwhile, interest in recapturing Brent and Daniels runs very high. Cruz’s superior, Galindo (Alfonso Carvajal, from The Mad Doctor of Blood Island and The Beast of Blood), informs him that people at the highest levels of government want to pump Karen for whatever she knows about Ernesto’s operation, and threatens that Cruz will be held personally responsible if she isn’t caught. That being so, the captain bends the rules a little, and outsources the hunt to Ruben Rojas (Sid Haig, of Blood Bath and Beyond Atlantis), a ruthless gangster (and a rival of Vic’s) who controls pretty much all of the illegal activity in the part of the country where the fugitives were last seen. Rojas is leery of allowing himself to be seen cooperating with the authorities, but Cruz has devised a face-saving obfuscation to benefit both sides— officially, Rojas will simply be turning in the escapees to collect the same $10,000 reward that would be available to anybody. Nor will Ruben be the only criminal on the lookout for our heroines. Lee’s old pal, Vic, wants his money back, and maybe even more, he wants to make absolutely certain that everyone on the island knows the price for crossing him.
Black Mama, White Mama is less whimsically sleazy than the Jack Hill chicks-in-chains movies that inspired it, and a bit more conventional (and thus predictable) than Romero’s later Savage Sisters. Also, while Margaret Markov is in fine form, Pam Grier displays surprisingly little of the fiery charisma she so consistently exuded under Hill’s direction. In particular, she doesn’t quite hold up her end of the friction between Lee and Karen, although that aspect of the story is rather underwritten anyway. The women declare their truce a little too soon, I think, and while I’m glad the basis of their antagonism is nothing so obvious as racism, the issue of Robles vs. San Carlos as an escape destination seems a trifle anemic as a source of conflict. This is especially true given the early scenes in the film emphasizing the difference between the two prisoners’ personal styles of rebellion. (Daniels is all about maintaining her dignity and self-respect no matter what life throws her, whereas Brent is an ends-justify-the-means kind of gal.) Consequently, I have to rate this movie a bit lower than both its main competition and its semi-parodic successor. It does have its strong points, however. Markov, as I said, is quite good, and both Sid Haig and Vic Diaz are terrific as the eccentrically despicable crime bosses. Diaz conveys genuine menace in the torture scene that introduces him, while Haig gets the glory in the film’s two most noteworthy moments of black humor— first when Rojas goes to discuss business with an old ally of his, but gets sidetracked seducing the other man’s daughters, then again when he impresses upon Galindo and Cruz the importance of leaving him alone to do his job. Another high point is the increasingly profane argument that Karen and Lee get into while riding a crowded bus disguised as nuns. (A crude gag, yes, but funny nonetheless.) That last bit is exactly the sort of thing Black Mama, White Mama needed more of.