As the 2010 documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed! taught us, the Philippines played a crucial part in the exploitation film world of the 70’s and 80’s. A great number of these genre films shot in the Philippines were of the women-in-prison variety. Despite how that may sound, these movies were all about strong female leads and they kicked just as much, if not more, ass than the boys. The most famous of these leads was and is Pam Grier and one of her first roles was in Eddie Romero’s Black Mama White Mama AKA Women in Chains AKA Chained Women AKA Hot, Hard, and Mean.
Going forward I’ll just refer to the movie as Black Mama White Mama but I thought it was fun to point out those other titles.
Grier stars as Lee Daniels, a prostitute that has recently been arrested and taken to a women’s prison. Within minutes of arriving at the prison she gets off to a bad start. After one of the other new inmates faints, Lee attempts to help her up much to the chagrin of Densmore (Lynn Borden), one of the more sadistic prison guards. From this point forward Densmore has her eyes set on Lee, but it’s not for the reason you’d think. Densmore is a lesbian and she takes a liking to Lee.
After the inmates all get checked in they’re immediately sent to take a shower. Densmore uses this opportunity to sneak into a little closet outside the showers. Inside the closet Densmore has a Norman Bates moment as she watches the inmates begin to bathe through a hole in the closet wall. This is probably the most exploitative moment in the movie and likely what people think of when they hear women-in-prison movie. As the ladies shower they begin to have a playful water fight which Densmore enjoys very, very much.
Later that evening as the inmates are hitting the sack, a guard is sent to bring Lee to Densmore’s room. Densmore apologizes to Lee for the bad start they got off to and lets her know that prison can be a good time if you know the right people. Lee promptly lets Densmore know she is not interested in the slightest bit. Densmore is very upset by this news and puts on a black glove and begins to smack Lee across the face until she is stopped by the warden Logan (Laurie Burton), whom she is actually in a relationship with.
The next day in the meal hall Lee discovers that Densmore has turned her focus to another new inmate named Karen (Margaret Markov), a revolutionary who is desperately trying to break out. Unlike Lee, Karen is willing to get involved with Densmore with hopes that it will help her escape. This upsets Lee which leads to a fight between the two. The fight results in both girls being stripped down and locked in the “oven” – a tiny metal box set out in the blistering sun.
Once the two are released from the box, they are shackled together and thrown on a bus to be transferred to a maximum security prison. As the bus heads down the highway it is attacked by Karen’s group of revolutionaries. As a huge battle ensues, with many ending up dead, Karen and Lee, still chained together, head off into the tropical jungle together.
Karen and Lee both have different plans and want to go in different directions. Lee has a ton of money she’s stolen from her ruthless pimp Vic (Vic Diaz) and she wants to hop on a boat and leave the island. Meanwhile Karen has plans to meet up with some people that will supply her revolutionaries with guns. The two are forced to compromise and attempt to work together until they can remove the chain.
Unfortunately for the ladies the chain isn’t their only issue. Vic is on to Lee’s plan and he sends his goons out to find her. Plus the prison still wants to bring the two in and sends out a corrupt cop who hires a bounty hunter named Ruben (Sid Haig) to assist him. And then there are the dangers of the hot, humid jungle. Long story short, this ain’t gonna be easy.
Black Mama White Mama is a ton of fun, even if it is far from a perfect movie. Grier and Markov are fantastic together. I wouldn’t say the two start off as enemies, but they don’t care for one another and have different goals. They’re able to overcome their differences to work together and as a result a strong friendship is born. And best of all, they kick a ton of ass along the way.
Sid Haig’s Ruben is wildly entertaining. He’s over-the-top in his dialogue, actions and “southwestern” inspired attire. This performance from Haig seems like it set the bar for a lot of Nicolas Cage roles, in particular his roles from Wild at Heart and Deadfall. I love Nicolas Cage like you’ll never know, so when I say this I absolutely mean it as a compliment. There’s one really crazy scene where Haig plays sexual games with the daughters of one of his “business” associates. I say sexual games because I don’t know how else to put it. He strips down to just his tighty whities and crawls around the floor as the girls ride him like a cowboy. Certainly not something you see everyday.
The one real issue I have is about Karen and her team of revolutionaries. What are they revolting against? We never really know. I suppose given the time period it’s the government but they don’t talk about it much. I guess it’s not so much an issue as it is odd that it’s never mentioned.
Black Mama White Mama is now out on a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Arrow Video and it’s a fantastic release. The picture quality is excellent providing a truly stunning presentation. The release also comes with some really nice special features. There’s a feature commentary with director Andrew Leavold as well as pre-recorded interview Leavold did with Romero a number of years ago. There are two new interviews – one with Markov and one with Haig. Both of these are fantastic. Markov talks about her entire acting career, which was fairly brief. She still works in the business these days, but it’s as part of a distribution company that her and her husband, producer Mark Damon, started. She reflects very fondly on her career. The Haig interview is all about his time spent in the Philippines where he shot a total of 7 movies. Haig refers to the Philippines as his second home and tells some great stories, one that involves a giant rat. The best moments come when he talks about Grier though. He gets a little emotional as he talks about first meeting her and the friendship they formed. You can tell the two are very close and it’s a sweet moment from an actor known for playing not-so-nice characters.
Even though Black Mama White Mama exits the prison early on, I consider this to be a women-in-prison film and one of the best of the bunch. It’s without question a staple of the Filipino exploitation boom. I highly recommend it.
Black Mama White Mama is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.