Arrow Heads! Vol. 10: On The Lam With BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (1973)

Arrow Heads — Arrow Video, a subsidiary of Arrow Films, humbly describe themselves as merely a “Distributor of classic, world, cult and horror cinema on DVD & Blu-ray”. But we film geeks know them as the Britain-based bastion of the brutal and bizarre, boasting gorgeous Blu-ray releases with high quality artwork and packaging and bursting with extras (often their own productions). Their collector-friendly releases had traditionally not been available in the U.S, but now Arrow has come across the pond and this column is devoted to discussing their weird and wonderful output.

In the early 70s there were a number of independent films shot in the Philippines, where local crews were talented and movies were relatively inexpensive to make. Within that movement arose the bizarre subgenre of tough-as-nails and often rather mean-spirited “women in prison” films. Of the handful of these that Pam Grier appeared in, I would personally identify Black Mama, White Mama as the best.

While The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, and Women In Cages are kind of a blur of similarly skeevy and gratuitous exploitation films, BMWM, co-written by Jonathan Demme (yes, that Jonathan Demme), tones down the prison exploitation angle and instead serves up an engaging prison break tale with enjoyable characters and a meaningful (if stolen) plot: A pair of bickering inmates who can’t stand each other, Lee and Karen (Pam Grier, black, and Margaret Markov, white), escape from a prison transport but are shackled to each other and must work together to elude their captors and secure their freedom.

The film wastes no time in introducing us to Lee and Karen, opening with their arrival as new inmates to a Filipino jail. For awhile it seems very typical of yet another “women in prison” movie, where the subgenre’s sleazier tendencies (a sadistic lesbian matron, a group shower scene, and prisoners catfighting) are on full display. What’s great about BMWW, though, is that after paying a bit of lip service to these tropes, it quickly moves on to the prison break. As genre historian Andrew Leavold notes in the disc’s commentary, director Eddie Romero was somewhat embarrassed by having such skeevy elements in his films, and perhaps that’s why BMWM gets the lead out. Regardless of the reason, it’s a nice changeup and the “on the lam” film that follows is much more worthwhile, slipping in some comedy and social commentary (as well as some seedy stuff here and there), and rather obviously referencing a much more famous film.

The plot is of course a gender-reversal of 1958’s Academy Award-winning The Defiant Ones, which starred Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as a white and black man in the same situation, escaping prison while shackled together. This sort of pillaging wasn’t uncommon for the era, in fact Eddie Romero’s next couple films The Twilight People and The Woman Hunt similarly took inspiration from The Island Of Dr. Moreau and The Most Dangerous Game, respectively. The Trilogy of Pillagery™.

I find it interesting that the film not only cribs its plot, but even stages some similar scenes and shots. Plagiarism or homage? I honestly can’t say. Nor would it be the last time, The Defiant Ones template was again used in 1996’s Fled starring Laurence Fishburne and Stephen Baldwin, and elements of it show up in other instances of pop culture as well.

As Lee and Karen make their escape, the mutual need for survival forces their cooperation and compromise, giving way to understanding and friendship. While neither character is explicitly racist and their racial differences are not cited as a direct point of contention, Lee is clearly cut from a rougher cloth with a druglord father and history of prostitution, while Karen’s more upscale crimes are related to her activism as a revolutionary (the details of which are left vague, but no doubt a response to the widespread corruption of the local government).

Meanwhile, a host of colorful characters are out to find them: Lee’s slimy pimp (Filipino star Vic Diaz) wants her back. Karen’s revolutionary friends, who orchestrated her escape in the first place, haven’t been able to track her down (in part because her anticipated trajectory is altered by compromising with Lee). Their enemies, the corrupt government and police force, are hot on the trail as well, and hire a flamboyant but effective gangster (the legendary Sid Haig, who’s in pretty much all of these Filipino movies as well as several with Pam Grier) as a bounty hunter.

The film caps off with a violent firefight as the various groups converge at a dock where Lee intends to catch a boat to safety, and this battle is interesting for its complexity in both its multiple factions and for the surprises it holds for the audience.

I’m not a fan of the Filipino “women in prison” subgenre, and generally find it rather lewd and tasteless in both its subject matter and presentation (my familiarity derives mainly from my “Here for Grier” love of Pam). That said, Black Mama, White Mama is not only my hands-down favorite entry in this particular group of films, but probably the most accessible as well, for those interested in dipping their toes.

The Package

Black Mama, White Mama is new on Blu-ray this week from Arrow Video.

The package has Arrow’s usual trimmings: Blu-ray and DVD discs, a transparent (white) case, reversible cover with new and classic artwork, and a booklet jam-packed with notes on the film.

An impressive feature-set includes marketing materials and three interviews, two of them new and unique to this edition.

Special Features and Extras

White Mama Unchained with Margaret Markov (13:59)
 Margaret sits down with Arrow for a career-spanning bio that looks at her film (and TV) roles including Black Mama White Mama and The Arena with Pam Grier, Pretty Maids All In A Row, The Hot Box, The Jimmy Stewart Show, and others. She’s bubbly and upbeat, making this a fun watch.

Sid Haig’s Filipino Adventures (15:49)
 Another Arrow production unique to this release. Sid Haig, who appeared in many films shot in the Philippines (including the several with Black Mama, White Mama collaborators Pam Grier or director Eddie Romero), expresses his love for the country and its people, but also the harsh conditions and various mishaps experienced while living and shooting there.

The Mad Director Of Blood Island: An Interview with Eddie Romero (14:37)
 Poorer in audio and video quality and presented in SD, this interview features Filipino director Eddie Romero and several of his films which included the horror, war, and exploitation genres. Due to the lesser audio quality and Eddie’s accent, I found this one a bit difficult to hear.

Theatrical Trailer (1:52)

Feature Commentary by Andrew Leavold
 Genre expert Andrew Leavold is the producer of several documentaries, most relevantly Machete Maidens Unleashed which focuses on Filipino exploitation films. This is next level expert commentary from someone who has done extensive study on the subject, including first-hand research and interviews in the Philippines.

 A collection of images of promotional materials including posters and lobby cards. Perhaps the most interesting inclusion is a suggestion sheet for theaters which lists some rather nutty ideas for promoting the movie.

Double feature suggestion:

Instead of doubling up with another prison movie, pair it with The Arena which reunited Pam Grier and Margaret Markarov in a tale of gladiatorial combat, or check out the aforementioned Machete Maidens Unleashed for insight into the Filipino exploitation genre.

Wam! Bam! Read More About Pam!
 Sheba, Baby — Blu-ray Review
 Coffy and Foxy Brown — Blu-ray Review
 Friday Foster — Blu-ray Review
 An Evening With Pam Grier in Kansas City

A/V Out.

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