Sunday, May 22, 2011


How could you go wrong with a women-in-prison film with Pam Grier in the Philippines -- especially when you've got violent revolutionary action, plenty of naked shower action and lesbian innuendo, Vic Diaz and Sid Haig as gangsters, and the all-important gimmick of Grier and blonde fellow-amazon Margaret Markov chained together on the lam in a distaff variation on The Defiant Ones? Here's how.

Problem number one is that, if you're going to do Defiant Ones in drag, you've got to do some race-baiting. But by making the white prisoner Karen a left-wing revolutionary director Eddie Romero and a story team that included the young Jonathan Demme pretty much throw away any opportunity to stir up intense conflict between the chained women. The script tries to make class an issue for one scene as black prisoner Lee mocks Karen's revolutionary commitment as the playacting of a spoiled rich girl, but this movie never unleashes the all-out hate or the bonding personal revelations the Defiant Ones gimmick needs to work. The most we get once the defiant duo break loose is that Karen wants to go one way to reunite with her revolutionary comrades (and boyfriend Ernesto) who ambushed their prison van in mid-transfer in the first place, while Lee wants to go where the $40,000 she stole from sleazy pimp Vic (Diaz) is stashed. It's okay that they end up going Lee's way, since you're probably anticipating that the money is going to end up with the cash-starved revolutionaries thanks to some political awakening on Lee's part. But a lot of stuff that you might expect to see happen here -- just because in many cases it's the obvious play for an exploitation film -- doesn't.

Romero's movie smacks of having been put together ad hoc of parts that don't quite fit together, right down to the trailer whose narrator clearly thinks that he's promoting a movie called "Women in Chains." Black Mama spends its first reels setting up the sapphic hell of a prison to which Lee and Karen are condemned. The warden (Laurie Burton) and head matron (Lynn Borden) are clearly lovers, but the warden's lust is too voracious for one woman. She has a peephole to observer her charges showering while she masturbates. She offers the more attractive prisoners privileges in return for sexual favors. Lee turns her down ("I just don't like to be forced.") while Karen accepts (off-screen) out of revolutionary necessity. That creates resentment in Lee (if not jealousy; the two newbies seemed to be checking each other out as they arrived) because when Karen gets taken off a work detail it means more work for Lee. And that leads to their first battle, a feeble food fight that unfortunately sets the tone for their struggles throughout the picture.

Romero has no clue how to make these two big girls seem powerful. He has Pam Grier at his disposal and makes her look weak. Neither of the women -- who would soon be cast together as gladiators, for crying out loud -- seems capable her of much more than impotent slapping and scratching. Romero seems not to have gotten the news that he was in the 1970s, the era of the superwoman, and his cluelessness cripples Black Mama, White Mama. He should have Grier and Markov running amok through the island, fighting each other and all comers, but once they are set loose by Ernesto's bungled rescue attempt (during which our heroines kill the warden and the rebels kill the matron) Romero seems to go out of his way to find distractions from the stars' story.

It's okay to introduce Vic and his gangsters, since it's his money Lee is after and Diaz's scenes hit just the right note of sleaze. Diaz, the international face of Filipino exploitation, actually rules it quite nicely as he calmly supervises the electrode torture of a prostitute while receiving a pedicure from a topless floozy. To clarify what I mean by sleaze: if a woman takes off her top in a scene, it's erotic; if she starts the scene topless, it's sleaze. Anyway, we expect to see Vic's men on a collision course with Ernesto's rebels, but in mid-film Romero introduces more characters, not to complicate things, but to pad out the movie. We get some Filipino cops who are out to get Vic's money if not Vic himself -- but to keep a low profile they subcontract the pursuit of the escaped women to Ruben (Sid Haig), an American criminal and all-around cowboy-for-hire who ends up being, along with the cops, the comedy relief of the picture.

The funniest thing about Haig here, however, are his costumes. Still, you might be interested in what might happen when Ruben catches up with the girls -- but remember what I wrote above about what you expect to happen. Ruben and the cops largely exist in their own closed-off universe within the main film. They mostly interact with each other, as when Ruben catches the cops tailing him and forces them to drop trou so he can (for some reason) inspect their penises. The only character from the main story whom Ruben encounters is Ernesto, and the rebels kill him and his men in a fight over bloodhounds before Ruben comes anywhere close to Lee and Karen. Haig's presence comes across as a big waste of our time.

Overall, Black Mama, White Mama is a case of too many cooks and not enough confidence in the stars or the main story of the film. Too often, Lee and Karen's adventures are played for laughs, as when they mug a couple of nuns and somehow (while still shackled together) manage to don their habits for a reel or so. Eddie Romero has made some interesting horror films, but he seems like the wrong man for the job this time, when a Jack Hill or (to use local talent) a Cirio H. Santiago would have gone for the jugular every time. This is a film I've wanted to see for a long time, and now that the Albany Public Library has acquired it in a stash of blaxploitation pictures it proves to be a big disappointment. Some of my regular readers may feel that a film like this was hopeless from the start, but I want to make clear that what disappoints me most about Black Mama, White Mama is that it fails as an exploitation film. It should have been more violent and more sleazy as well as more feminist and more coherent. Just about everyone involved has done better, and I feel a need now to find the proof of that.

And here's the trailer for Women in Ch-- I mean Black Mama, White Mama, uploaded to YouTube by oldiestrailers.


Hellbilly Hollywood said...

I liked it ok, but found the ending way too serious.

Samuel Wilson said...

HH, I'll never reproach anyone for finding a way to like something I didn't, and I agree that the end was too serious and downbeat. Worse, instead of wrapping things up in any satisfactory way, it kinda just stopped. That didn't help.

Hellbilly Hollywood said...

I agree, it did just end. One of those cases I guess where I was entertained, but disapointed.

Have you seen Amazon Jail? I got it recently, but havent watched yet.

venoms5 said...

This was decent, but nothing to rave about. I agree with everything you've said, Sam. I think what made this most disappointing was how enjoyably sleazy Pam's first two filipino flicks were, BIG DOLL HOUSE and WOMEN IN CAGES compared to this one.

Anonymous said...

You have the lesbian guards' names backwards. Lynn Borden was the blonde guard with the peephole in the girls' shower, etc.