Directed by Eddie Romero
Starring Pam Grier, Margaret Markov
Release Date: January 19, 1973
With saucy dialog like that and a lurid title, you could be forgiven for expecting BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA to be a run-of-the-mill exploitation romp. It certainly has all the ingredients: gorgeous women behind bars, breasts a-plenty, lesbian shower frolicking and bloody gunfights. All of these elements are present and correct. However, with tight scripting, terrific cinematography and strong performances, BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA manages to rise above most drive-in fare of the early 1970’s.
World-weary prostitute Lee Daniels (Pam Grier, FOXY BROWN) and rich girl-turned-revolutionary Karen Brent (Margaret Markov, THE ARENA) find themselves in a hellish island prison. They immediately learn to hate each other. The two couldn’t possibly be more different. Lee is intent on saving her self-respect at all costs whereas Karen is willing to do whatever (and whomever) it takes to survive her situation.
Outside of the prison, the island’s government is very interested in these two new inmates. Lee’s boyfriend/pimp is one of the biggest drug lords on the island and Karen’s revolutionary friends are making life very difficult for the despots running the government. To that end, the two women are shackled together and loaded onto a bus for transport to a maximum security prison. Karen’s revolutionaries make a bid to spring her from captivity which goes terribly wrong, leaving the still-chained Karen and Lee alone and on the run with no choice but to work together towards freedom.
The successful Roger Corman-produced women-in-prison duo of THE BIG DOLL HOUSE (1971) and THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972) are obvious inspirations for BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA, right down to the casting of Grier in the lead. While the Corman films peppered titillation with scene after scene of indignity heaped upon its female cast, BLACK MAMA takes a different tack. The film plays out like a cartoonish TV movie of the mid-seventies with rich colors, over-the-top action and a bit of political intrigue sprinkled in for good measure.
The other obvious influence is Stanley Kramer’s THE DEFIANT ONES (1958), a film starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as two escaped prisoners who are shackled together and must overcome their racial tension to stay alive.
There are a couple of rather unpleasant torture scenes which are all the more effective because of the over-the-top nature of the scenes surrounding them. This approach lends those scenes a gravitas they might not otherwise have had and helps solidify the black-and-white nature of the characters. The film rather conveniently gives us good guys who are good and bad guys who are bad without any pesky shades of gray to distract us from the goings on.
And, oh, the things that go on! When the sadistic prison matron (a wonderfully unhinged Lynn Borden) is caught by the warden pleasuring herself while spying on the inmates in the shower, it turns out they are lovers. The two have a creepy “if Mildred Pierce and Veda were lesbians” vibe that works due to the performances of Borden and Laurie Burton as the icy warden. Their passive-aggressive, co-dependent relationship is uncomfortable and funny at the same time. It all seems right out of an adult comic book or one of Jess Franco’s tamer efforts as does a scene where Karen ties her panties around a dog’s neck to throw off the scent of the tracking dogs used by the women’s pursuers.
The supporting cast does very well here. Director Eddie Romero has been able to coax performances from the cast that play into the cartoonish feel of the film while still keeping one foot firmly on the ground.
Vic Diaz, who played a buffoonish guard in the Corman films, is terrifically icky as the drug lord Pam Grier is beholden to. He sneers his way through the film as hookers lick his hairy, corpulent belly and cower at his feet. Genre stalwart Sid Haig is on hand to provide both comedy and menace as a mercenary employed by the police to track down the escapees. He’s such an over-the-top villain that you can’t help but like him. He has a hilarious bedroom scene with two young ladies that has to be seen to be believed. Comic gold.
With all the grimness of prison life, electric nipple torture, panty sniffing and bloody shootouts to be found in the film, BLACK MAMA doesn’t forget to give us the comic relief these sorts of films need. Markov and Grier spend a sizeable chunk of the middle third of the film disguised as nuns, which is delightfully absurd. The characters’ propensity to stop their flight from justice at regular intervals to have another catfight is amusing, as is the fact that “White Mama” Markov’s character wears white panties while Grier wears black. This viewer found such a ridiculous detail rather endearing.
BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA also avoids one mistake all too common in these sorts of films, it doesn’t tie everything up into a nice little bow in the end. While Karen and Lee come to respect each other, there isn’t any weepy reconciliation at the end. They both remain different people with different ways of looking at the world. Karen remains a “the ends justify the means for the greater good” character and Lee retains her “you gotta look out for number one and keep your self-respect” outlook. The film doesn’t judge either woman for their worldview. They find a way to work together in spite of their differences, which is not a bad moral for a film that most would see mere titillation.