Pam Grier solidified her b-movie fame with films like Coffy and Foxy Brown but she built the foundation for that stardom in the Philippines, sweating her way through women-in-prison exploitation epics like The Big Doll House and Women In Cages. Her final stop on the Filipino-sploitation trail was Black Mama, White Mama, a distaff drive-in redux of The Defiant Ones that paired her up with Margaret Markov, the same Amazonian b-movie starlet who partnered with Grier in Arena. The results are basically a programmer but what they lack in invention they make up in period charm.
Black Mama, White Mama starts in a traditional women-in-prison flick way as it establishes Karen (Markov), a political prisoner who ends up in the same prison camp with a prostitute named Lee (Grier). After a shower scene and some tangles with a lesbian guard, the two escape from a prison bus when some of Karen’s revolutionary pals attack it. When the cops show up, Karen and Lee – who are shackled to each other – have to go on the run together. Neither is crazy about the other but both develop a grudging respect as they do their best to dodge the government men after Karen and the syndicate types after Lee.
The result doesn’t try to innovate or weave in the kind of political commentary you might see in a New World Pictures outing: on the latter note, it avoids the racial commentary of its model, The Defiant Ones. Instead, Black Mama, White Mama just goes for chases and shootouts with the occasional quip about revolutionary ideals. Director Eddie Romero, a vet of the Filipino-sploitation scene, just concentrates on delivering action beats plus the occasional splash of skin at reliable intervals. To his credit, the results are good sleazy fun, kind of like an adult-oriented comic book, and he makes excellent use of picturesque jungle-style and village locations in the Philippines.
Black Mama, White Mama also boasts a fun cast: in addition to the leads, Sid Haig pops up as a womanizing sleazeball hired by the government to track the women and Vic Diaz has lots of fun as the icy gangland figure who wants to get Lee. That said, it’s Grier and Markov who carry the film on their shoulders. Grier shows a nice flair for humor that would be teased out by Jack Hill in Coffy and Foxy Brown while the underrated Markov has a charismatic steeliness that matches her tough, statuesque look.
In short, Black Mama, White Mama is a fun little grindhouse quickie that doubles as a good showcase for Grier as she shoots and punches her way toward iconic status in the exploitation flick scene.
Blu-Ray Notes: This film recently debuted on high-def in the U.S. via a new blu-ray/DVD combo from Arrow Video. The MGM-sourced transfer looks great, capturing all the color of the jungle settings and delivering crisp detail throughout. The mono audio is presented in lossless form and it’s a solid presentation of this straightfoward mix.
Arrow has also assembled a nice slate of extras for this release. First up is a commentary track by documentarian and Filipino film historian Andrew Leavold. He offers plentiful detail on the career of Romero and the key Filipino actors as well as some commentary on the unique appeal and tropes of Filipino-sploitation.
There are a trio of interview featurettes. The first is with Markov (14:01), who covers her early ’70 career in a cheerful way and speaks fondly of working with Grier. A sitdown with Haig (15:51) focuses on his stint in the Philippines, covering both the wonders and horrors of working in the area (there’s a great story about Grier and The Big Bird Cage). Finally, an interview with Romero (14:38) has Leavold walking him through his career and also chatting a bit about his work on Apocalypse Now.
The package is rounded out by an image gallery and a trailer.
Full Disclosure: this review was done using a check-disc blu-ray provided by Arrow Video U.S.A. The disc used for the review reflects what buyers will see in the finished blu-ray.