Black Mama, White Mama (1973)
By: Stuart Giesel on July 19, 2012  | 
Umbrella | Region 4, PAL | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 | 83 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Eddie Romero
Starring: Pam Grier, Margaret Markov, Sid Haig, Lynn Borden
Screenplay: H.R. Christian
Country: USA, Philippines
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With such a lurid title and the presence of blaxploitation queen Pam Grier, not to mention solid support from genre fave Sid Haig, this had all the potential to be a grindhouse classic. Unfortunately, whilst Black Mama, White Mama has the prerequisite boobs, blood and torture as found in your favourite Women In Prison films, it's not truly sleazy enough to stand tall alongside the sub-genre's finest, of which Grier herself has starred in at least a couple.

Like your typical Warner Bros. cartoons or your cliched action film where two characters who hate one another find themselves handcuffed together and are forced to work together, Black Mama, White Mama sees the physical bonding of two prison inmates - and rivals - after they escape from a sweaty women's prison in the Philippines: overbearing revolutionary Karen (Margaret Markov) and ex-hooker Lee (Grier). Karen wants to ensure that a weapons delivery gets to her band of revolutionaries, whilst Lee merely wants to escape the island with the money she stole from the grotesque crime lord and pimp Vic Cheng (Vic Diaz). Sexually-obsessed (and horribly dressed) bounty hunter Ruben (Haig) is also on the girls' trail, but sometimes seems more concerned with scoring with the local ladies than carrying out his mission.

The Philippines setting provides a more interesting backdrop than is usual for a WIP film; you can practically feel the humidity ooze through the screen. But whilst Markov and Grier are capable leads, the film ultimately doesn't do much with their pairing other than provide the opportunity for them to have the odd catfight and dress up as nuns to evade the police. And in even more of a blasphemous turn of events, Grier is practically sidelined in the final action scene! Still, at least she gets her kit off at the start of the film, so it's hard to get too worked up about Black Mama, White Mama's flaws.

There are highlights: Vic Diaz's crime boss is wonderful - arrogant, horrible, sweaty and sexist, but unfortunately he's underused. Markov, Grier and Haig anchor the film well, a good thing considering the rest of the cast aside from Diaz is pretty unmemorable. The opening prison scenes are effective, and I for one wished they didn't cut to Markov and Grier's escape quite so early. And there are a few odd scenes which linger in the mind, like one involving Haig as he beds the daughters of a local scumbag, and a scene where two cops are forced to compare the size of their penises (!). But the film as a whole is a bit of a mess, somewhat surprising considering the story is credited to one Jonathan Demme.

So even though this is probably categorised as a Women In Prison film, it can't really stand up to the far superior Jack Hill/Pam Grier pairings The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House, nor against other classics like the Demme-directed Caged Heat. For one, there's precious time spent in the prison. It's time well spent, of course - there's abundant nudity, torture and a lesbian warden who obsesses over Grier. But pretty soon we're whisked away to the tropical undergrowth of the Philippines, and even Sid Haig can't liven up the proceedings too much. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of bloody shootouts and chases, but Black Mama, White Mama doesn't feel as sleazy or exciting as it should have been.

With a more focused plot, extra layers of sleaze and more action-oriented participation from Grier, this could have been an extremely strong blaxploitation/WIP film instead of a marginally interesting one. It's still pretty fun and watchable, but you just wish Black Mama, White Mama had gone for broke.
Black Mama, White Mama's low budget origins shine through in this grainy transfer. Detail is lacking, and some of the scenes appear quite soft, but colours are vivid - just check out Sid Haig's shirt! - and there aren't as many artifacts as I'd been expecting. It's probably as good a picture as you're going to get for a film like this.
The 2.0 soundtrack is okay; the dialogue and sound effects come through the channels well enough, even if some scenes are a bit echo-ey.
Extra Features
There are no extras on the disc.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
It's one part Women In Prison, two parts cons-on-the-run and one part convoluted mess, but for fans of Pam Grier or Margaret Markov, Black Mama, White Mama is an easy sell, particularly if bloody violence, nudity and a topping of sleaze is your cup of tea. It could have been a whole lot more, but there are worse ways to spend your time.

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