Black Mama, White Mama Review
Much as one would have loved this to have been a lighting-fast female remake of that same year's blaxploitation classic The Thing With Two Heads, in which Ray Milland stars as a racist brain surgeon with terminal cancer who has his head grafted onto the body of African-American Rosey Grier, it was sadly not to be. Can this reviewer be the only one who would have looked forward to the sight of the white Margaret Markov and the black Pam Grier grafted onto the same body and forced to take a shower? Are we talking about that strange a request here?
Black Mama, White Mama stars Pam Grier and Margaret Markov as Lee Daniels and Karen Brent, respectively, as two female prisoners, one black and one white, who get transported to a women's prison on a small Southeast Asian island. Whilst Lee is in for prostitution, Karen is the daughter of a rich family on the island, who has become involved Patty Hearst-style with a group of revolutionaries trying to overthrow the corrupt government.
Following their transfer from the police cells in which they were held after their arrest and into prison, one of the female guards makes a pass at Lee but is shunned, although she is more successful when she tries again the next day with Karen. After a later fight in the prison canteen, however, both women get put into solitary confinement before being transferred to a maximum security prison elsewhere on the island. When the prison bus they are travelling in is ambushed and despite being chained together, they go on the run and, disguised as nuns, try to make their way across the island to where Karen's group of revolutionaries were to meet her before her arrest. To add to their already considerable problems, there is a crooked cop on their tail who is prepared to bring in his quarry dead or alive - either will do...
In common with other blaxploitation films, Black Mama, White Mama is a cheap remake of an earlier film with added blood, nudity and soul music, not to mention African-Americans. In this case, however, what with the film being a remake of Stanley Kramer's 1958 film, The Defiant Ones, such an alteration is unnecessary, although a change of sex is. The earlier film starred Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, who were both Oscar-nominated for their performances, as handcuffed prisoners on the run and trying to understand better race relations at a very local, if not immediate, level. With Black Mama, White Mama, Pam Grier and Margaret Markov take on the Poitier and Curtis roles, dropping the study into race relations for one closer to class war as Grier's poor hooker bickers with Markov's revolutionary rich girl. Don't think for a second, however, that this allows the film to offer any social commentary as the early-seventies street-talk, the willingness of the stars to get naked (notably the extended communal shower scene within the female prison not six minutes in) and the easy bloodshed put this clearly into the exploitation category.
In the early seventies, Roger Corman decided that the Philippines would allow him to make movies even cheaper than those he was producing in the US and which would offer better weather, more colourful locations and a cast of men and women working for peanuts in the hope of making it big in the international market. Actually, examples of the latter are so rare as to be non-existent and Corman really did no more than hire local filmmakers Eddie Romero and Gerry de Leon to make low-budget movies for the studio for whom he worked, American International. Corman's thinking clearly ran to believing that if US prisons were bad, those in the Philippines must be truly shocking and intervened, therefore, to suggest, via a story supplied by Jonathan Demme (who would make his own film about women's prisons two years after this with 1974's Caged Heat, also made for Corman), that Romero and de Leon may wish to remake The Defiant Ones but with female prisoners instead of male and this was the result.
Black Mama, White Mama is exactly what one would expect from an exploitation movie in that, around a solidly straightforward plot, there are sufficient quantities of blood, breasts and brawls to exclude the involvement of any major Hollywood studio. Thanks in no small part to Roger Corman's backing, the film moves along at a fair pace throughout, moving confidently from one set piece to another with only the most basic of dialogue between Grier and Markov to pass for the development of characterisation. If anything, this is the basic problem with Black Mama, White Mama, with so little understanding of their history and with a failure to connect the two characters at any level that we know little more at the end of the film about them than we did at the start. Indeed, Markov looks slightly out-of-place throughout, presumably believing that she was slumming it somewhat whereas Grier, in the role that convinced her to turn to acting as a career, plays the tough, sexy fighter with such ability that her later starring roles in Foxy Brown and Coffy ought never to have been in doubt.
However, in as much as everything is in place, it's the failure of Black Mama, White Mama to move out of its roots that means it will be little more than a mediocre film. Despite the lashings of shoot outs, fist fights, female nudity, free flowing Type-O and characters marked out as GOOD or BAD so clearly that you expect them to have either a halo or horns, there is genuinely little here to get excited about. For sure, it's interesting given that it marked Roger Corman's involvement in the Philippines, from which Francis Ford Coppola would later ask his advice prior to filming Apocalypse Now!, but who ever said that important movies had to be any good?
Given the nature of the film, this is a low-cost movie and such financial restrictions are shown in both the quality of the original film's image as well as the print from which the DVD has been sourced. There is a little print damage throughout, notably in the end-of-reel indicators in the top right corner of the screen, which are seen intermittently. However, such faults are not present throughout the film, with there being a number of scenes filmed and transferred wonderfully but not so many as to say this is anything other than a picture that is mediocre at best, reminiscent of nothing so much as American Ninja.
Black Mama, White Mama has been transferred with a 2.0 Mono soundtrack that sounds bright and immediate yet a little unexciting, principally as a result of the low budget afforded the movie by its studio.
Along with the rest of MGM's Soul Cinema range, Black Mama, White Mama has been released with a solitary extra:
Theatrical Trailer (1m50s, 1.85:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This is a typical trailer in that a series of highlights do little but offer a glimpse as to what the film's about.
It's alright but by no means great...or even, in fact, good. Black Mama, White Mama simply misses too many chances to be considered as a genre classic but with it being such an early example, made in the same year as Blacula and the year before Black Caesar and Blackenstein, such missteps can be forgiven. I doubt that anyone but a collector of blaxploitation movies will find much of interest here but if you've bought the rest, you may as well buy this one too and that is the highest recommendation one can offer here.