1972's Black Mama, White Mama is like three movies in one, a mixture of three genres. The first third of the flick is a good n' sleazy women-in-prison exploitationer. The second, a low-budget remake of The Defiant Ones with Pam Grier in the Sidney Poitier role and Tony Curtis replaced by leggy blonde Margaret Markov--a definite improvement, you'll agree. And the final act is a rip-roaring gangsters-vs.-revolutionaries action flick with bloody gun battles and machismo aplenty.
So really, no matter what you're in the mood for, chances are good that Black Mama, White Mama will satisfy. It's like a great big dish of neopolitan ice cream--drizzled all over with sweet, hot chocolate, of course.
We open on a heavily-armored bus that's taking a load of female prisoners to the WOMEN'S REHABILITATION CENTER, prison farm in the middle of a jungle in the Phillipines. The camera focuses our attention particularly on sassy sister Lee Daniels (Grier) and the silent, runway model-esque revolutionary leader, Karen Brent (Markov). A sadistic guard who looks a lot like Hot Lips Hoolihan imposes her authority on the two uncooperative women, and then it's time to process the new prisoners. Wasting no time, the Warden barks, "Okay, strip 'em and get 'em wet!" leading to the requisite communal shower scene.
The girls don't seem to grasp the gravity of their situation, romping and giggling in the shower like they're at camp or something, only soapy and naked. Guard Hot Lips watches from an enclosed peeping booth and pleasures herself while the girls have their fun. (It should be noted that this goes on FOREVER...not that I'm complaining.) When the Warden finds her and warns her off such activities with a big, passionate kiss, we know what kind of party it is. Ten minutes in, and we're already well on our way to surpassing the recommended daily sleaze requirement!
a catfight in the mess hall, after which the jealous Warden sentences them both to bake in The Oven for a day. This is a sheet-metal locker in the middle of a sunbaked field, in which the girls are shackled back to back, nude, with only each other for support against the searing steel walls. The sweat and hate run free in the box, and by the time they're released, you're convinced there's no way they can ever be friends.
Then act two kicks in, as Pam and Brent are chained to one another for transport ot a maximum security prison, where the Minister wants to interrogate Pam for info on a gang lord/smuggling chief she used to work for, and Brent for details about the Revolution's next move. They never make it to the new prison, however, as Brent's guerilla friends ambush the prison transport and give the girls the opportunity to strangle Hot Lips with their chain and escape in the ensuing fracas. The police reinforcements arrive and the guerrillas must flee before Brent can meet up with them, so the fugitive women head into the jungle, alone but for each other.
But of course the girls can't agree which route to freedom they should take--Brent needs to be on one side of the island to meet a shipment of guns in two days, or their cause is lost; Pam needs to be on the other side of the island a day earlier to pick up some loot she stole from the gang lord and make her escape via boat. The debate quickly devolves into fisticuffs, as we get another, longer cat-fight between the two tigresses that goes on almost as long as the shower scene did.
Exhausted and still stuck together, the women work out a plan whereby they'll head to Pam's rendezvous since it's closer, then they'll break the chains and Brent can get a car to drive to her meeting a few hours away. Thus resolved, they quickly jack some nuns and steal their habits, then are picked up by a drunken good Samaritan whom they also beat senseless and steal his truck. Everything's comin' up Mamas--it's almost too easy!
Meanwhile, rotund gang lord Vic Cheng is getting a pedicure from a couple of nude women while his men torture a prostitute with a battery and jumper cables, trying to get out of her information about Pam's plans. Vic Diaz as Cheng is really a frightening villain, lying shirtless like Buddha the Hutt and imparting all his lines with a calm, eeeevil assurance that's much more disturbing than a maniacal screech could ever be. This lets us know the girls are in real trouble, and the nudity and torture here pushes the sleaze-meter finally into the red.
Captain Cruz (Eddie Garcia) enlists the help of part-time cowboy/full-time pimp Ruben (a wonderfully flamboyant Sid Haig) to track down the girls before the guerillas do. The guerillas are also on the trail, stealing Ruben's dogs to track their leader across country.
The girls run on and on, being rousted from a bus by police (no idea what happened to their truck) and stealing food from a rural homestead while the owners have noisy sex inside. ("I sure hope he can hold it!" Pam giggles as they clean out the cabinets.) We get more topless women servicing the grotesquely inert Vic Cheng, an attempted rape by a mechanic who almost gets the girls free of their chains, and some absolutely movie-stealing character work by Sid Haig, who is just so wonderfully sleazy and funny every time he's on screen you can't help cheering for him, even though he's a despicable dirt bag. (Examples: in one scene--for no reason--he has Captain Cruz and Cruz's superior compare pecker sizes at gunpoint, with hilarious commentary; in another, he romps raucously with a henchmen's two young daughters while the mortified father listens from outside the door.)
Brent puts her panties around the neck of a small dog and sends it running in the opposite direction to mislead the bloodhounds on their trail!) and bond over their hardships, learning to work together and eventually becoming friends. Unfortunately all parties are converging on the port where Pam hopes to make her getaway, leading to not one but two bloody, really exciting gunfights and a tragic ending that I admit I didn't see coming, but was satisfied by nonetheless.
The thing that surprised me about Black Mama, White Mama was that, despite its sharply disjointed triptich of styles, each individual part works really, really well. Pam Grier is great as the same character she always plays, the tough-n'-sassy sister who takes no crap. Markov is not as good, but is gorgeous enough that it doesn't matter, especially since she can just play straight woman to Pam's buoyant, crowd-pleasing schtick. Sid Haig totally owns every scene he's in, but even his bloody exit doesn't deflate the film's momentum, since the action scenes are so well staged and suspenseful. And Vic Diaz is one of the great villains of all time here, giving a truly scary and intriguing characterization. (Henchman: "You should have killed that guy when you had the chance." Vic (calmly): "It's not too late.") The exploitation and sleaze, the blood and action, all first rate for this type of movie. Kudos there.
Jonathan Demme. (Seriously!) Maybe director and Filipino film legend Eddie Romero had something to do with it. Or maybe it was just a perfect storm. Whatever the reasons, the end result is a delicious sweet treat for lovers of action and exploitation. 2.5 thumbs. Can you dig it?