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Review: Black Mama, White Mama (1973)

Black Mama

Due to Arrow Video’s release of Black Mama, White Mama on DVD/Blu-Ray on  April 4th, we have reviewed the film in anticipation.

Plot summary: 

Lee Daniels (Pam Grier) and Karen Brent (Margaret Markov), two criminals, are sentenced to prison in the Philippines. Due to their behaviour, they are extradited to a maximum security prison. During the transfer, the police cars get road blocked by guerrillas. Chained together, the two women are forced to fight and pace their way through jungles, while gangsters and revolutionary guerrillas open fire on one another.


The Good:

A grindhouse spin on The Defiant Ones, this film subverts typical gender and genre conventions to offer us two female leads rather than the traditional counterparts. The story, created by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) and Joe Viola (Law and Order), is the reason as to why this film works. It would have been a lifeless mess with the cliché hard-knuckled men escaping prison. Instead, the audience get two defiantly strong women that fight their way through their oppressors – be it men twice their size or forthcoming women.

The performance from Grier is, as expected, top notch. Every time she is on screen, there is a certain magnetism to her words and movements that captivate audience members immediately, irrespective of the quality of the film. In Black Mama, White Mama it is no different. The cheesy dialogue and script suits Grier due to her background in Blaxploitation films which, in turn, prevents this film from being a cringeworthy mess, rather an undeniably fun time

Elsewhere, Makarov does not quite match Grier, but plays an interesting foil to her chained escapee. Their chemistry elevates their scenes in particular – some of the most enjoyable parts of the film. There is one moment revolving around nuns that is gut-busting in its hilariousness. And that is where this film hugely succeeds: it tows the fine line between seriousness and comedy. That balance is rare to find in exploitation films, particularly ones that borrow from various sectors: Blaxploitation and Sexploitation.

Black Mama, White Mama is scored to perfection. In fact, Quentin Tarantino sampled heavily from this film for Kill Bill. The score constantly matches the fast-paced narrative to raise the stakes in every action and escape scene. Entwined with the score and fast-paced narrative is Eddie Romero’s intense and quick-cut directing. It is clear that everyone involved knew that this film needed to play out rapidly, intensely and with clear drive through to the final act. It works because, from the score to the camera handling, everything is done with such celerity that you are rarely allowed a moment to relax your breathing – much like our chained escapees, Daniels and Brent.

There are some fragments of social commentary that break this out of being a typical Grindhouse film. There is the flowing narrative of racial power struggles as the Filipinos battle it out against Americans, and the idea of women being seen to be on par with drugs: a mere form of making quick money.


The Bad:

Despite being wholly enjoyable, Black Mama, White Mama is inherently flawed. Being entrusted with a low budget should not, in turn, mean poor editing. Yet the audience is constantly shown action scenes where the cuts could not be more obvious. The screen and audio jolt simultaneously and that split-second of nothingness has the ability to completely drag the audience out of the experience. Does it ruin the fun? For some, no. But for the cynical eye, this could cause the film to be switched off before it hits 20 minutes in runtime.

Black Mama, White Mama often attempts to provide the audience with strong social commentary that works. Yet there is one that simply does not. For example, Lee and Karen are set up as two strong females fighting against their mutual oppressors. It gives a resistant voice to women which is to be commended, particularly for an exploitation film of the 1970s, yet there are countless scenes of women being submissive and sexually tortured. This, of course, does not align with the positive commentary of women at the time in Filipino exploitation being viewed as drugs. It is just abhorrent cruelty that the filmmaker appears to parade and glorify in a couple of scenes.

Without sounding blasé, does anybody really care about what is happening around Lee and Karen? It is apparent that the purest fun, and beating heart, of Black Mama, White Mama comes from the quips and interchanges between Lee and Karen. All of the guerrilla and gangster scenes, away from the lead women, are turgid and derail the enjoyment of the film. An argument could be made that this is not a fault of the film, rather the excellent chemistry and performances of Grier and Makrov. Regardless, it makes for an incredibly lopsided film in parts.


The Verdict

Black Mama, White Mama is a blast, led by two sensational performances and a great score to boot. It is, unfortunately, let down by a poorly edited product and inconsistent script. It is down to the viewer to balance those notions and see which one prevails. Personally, it is more fun than poor. But the ratio does not tip wildly in the favour of “fun.”


Special Features and Transfer

Another excellent Arrow Video release. The special features are, as always, riddled with great interviews. There is a recent one with Makrov who talks at length about her role in the film but, the standout, is an unseen archive interview with director Eddie Romero.

In terms of the transfer, Arrow Video have restored the film in its original aspect ratio and boosted the overall picture quality. It is a fine looking Blu-Ray that preserves that 70’s grain that we all salivate over.


Rating Breakdown

The film:


The image:


The sound:


Special features:







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