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May 3, 2013

Midnight Movie of the Week #174 - Black Mama, White Mama

If you ever wondered what The Defiant Ones would look like with beautiful women in the Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier roles - or if you're younger and wondered the same thing about Stephen Baldwin and Larry Fishburne in Fled - then you're looking for Black Mama, White Mama. Produced in 1973 by Filipino director Eddie Romero, the film is a chance for Pam Grier - the Queen of Grindhouse herself - and blonde bombshell Margaret Markov to make the most out of a ridiculous premise and turn their island upside down.
Markov plays Karen, a revolutionary leader who's imprisoned alongside Grier's Lee, a prostitute, in a seedy woman's prison where the guards are a bit too frisky and shower time is excessively playful. The girls don't see eye to eye - Lee won't submit to the lusting head guard and Karen will - which leads to them being chained together just before they escape from work duty. Unable to shake free from one another, Karen and Lee struggle to survive while battling to meet their own needs.
If it all sounds kind of childish, that's because it is. This was a time when the Philippines became a go-to place for genre film producers, a place where rules didn't exist and labor costs were pretty darn low. As such, local "talents" fill up much of the cast and crew, and the lack of a Hollywood polish will put the movie close to "so bad it's good" territory for some viewers. Some of the actors, most notably a rotund villain who likes to torture nude women, seem like they were destined for Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame. But, thankfully, the talented cast shines brighter than the flaws of the low budget deserve.
Grier is a known quantity, though it's important to note that this film was produced just before her star-making role in Coffy, which was released later in the same year. We don't get much of the Grier swagger that we've come to love in her more famous blaxploitation films here, but her strong presence still radiates, especially when the action picks up. It's not the Grier I expected, but it's easy to see what she would become and how her personality earned her a place in Hollywood.
Markov is a less known name, but her starring turn as Karen fits perfectly alongside Grier. She looks the part of a California beach bunny, but she manages to show some attitude of her own and provide a bit of humor alongside Grier. Sequences like the one in which the duo disguise themselves as nuns pop off of the screen, primarily thanks to the chemistry these two share with each other. Markov would star in a couple more grindhouse films in the following year, but after marrying a producer she - sadly for us - retired from acting.  To be honest, Markov probably steals more scenes in this film than Grier does. And that's an impressive feat.
As if the two stars weren't enough, Romero also enlisted the services of horror favorite Sid Haig to spice up the picture. Haig co-stars as a seedy fella who is hired to track the escaped women, and who does so while hooking up with women, torturing the police on the case, and sporting a pretty fantastic tropical shirt.  Haig's performance is never quite sinister, but his manic energy gives the film a boost of unpredictability that is more than welcome. Also adding a bit of odd fun to the film is Lynn Borden as the lesbian prison guard who creates the wedge between Lee and Karen, and there's a part of me that's sad that Haig and Borden don't spend more time in this flick.
Black Mama, White Mama is nothing close to high art, but it's a surprising twist on a fun premise that never settles for a dull moment. It actually probably belongs on the high end of the Filipino genre cinema spectrum - see Machete Maidens Unleashed for more on that weird subgenre - and it's a chance for a few powerful actors to showcase their talents in unique ways. If you like trashy exploitation cinema, you'll definitely have a smile on your face by the time Black Mama, White Mama's final shootout rolls around.


Enbrethiliel said...


A few months ago, I was thinking of doing a "Western Movies Set in the Philippines" Smackdown, but I couldn't find enough movies for a bracket of sixteen. Black Mama, White Mama didn't make the original cut, but on your recommendation I'll be more likely to reconsider it.

That is, if I ever get that smackdown off the ground. =P I'm so busy these days that I'll barely have time to watch the movies which will make the Final Four, much less all sixteen. =/

Anonymous said...

Lynn Borden was HOT as the lesbian guard in khaki hot pants! Exciting herself by watching the girls take showers through a peephole! Beating Pam Grier for rejecting her sapphic lusts! She should have had more screen time before meeting her suitably nasty end! :-)