Monday 24 April 2023

Black Mama White Mama (1973)

Director: Eddie Romero
Writer: H. R. Christian, from a story by Joseph Viola and Jonathan Demme
Stars: Pam Grier, Margaret Markov,Sid Haig, Lynn Borden, Zaldy Zschornack and Laurie Burton

Index: The First Thirty.

It’s back to the Philippines for Pam Grier yet again. However, unlike earlier Filipino movies, this wasn’t made by New World Pictures. It’s a production of Four Associates, a collaboration between Eddie Romero and John Ashley; if you recall, the former directed the latter in 1972’s The Twilight People, with Grier only growling as Ayesa, the Panther Woman. Here, she’s jointly top-billed with Margaret Markov in a take on 1958’s The Defiant Ones, with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in a similarly chained chase flick.

Oddly, it starts out like a spaghetti western, for no reason I can determine. We’re looking at a Filipino prison, after all, but it’s not only the soundtrack, which is highly reminiscent; it’s also the shots of Grier and Markov on the Women’s Rehabilitation Center bus and those in the fields. It’s a strange way to kick off and it doesn’t continue in that vein at all, but it’s there nonetheless, making little sense.

What does make sense is that we have eyes on these two, because they’re the leads from the very beginning. Grier is Lee Daniels, who arrives in a flowing red dress and tries to help another girl who falls on the steps. Markov is Karen Brent, who doesn’t care about anything except the revolution she wants to return to.

If there’s a third star at this point, it’s Lynn Borden as Matron Densmore, who plays up the lesbian angle so common to women in prison movies. She’s a butch blonde with severe hair and she sneaks between some walls to spy on the inevitable shower scene, moaning so loud that we’re shocked the inmates don’t hear her. Warden Logan knows she’s in there and waits for her to come out. “Keep it up and you’ll go blind!” she tells her.

Apparently the two are an item, but Matron likes to play around. She invites Daniels to her room first, offering her a drink and benefits of cooperation, but Grier, so happily lesbian in a couple of earlier WiP flicks, happily turns her down. Brent, who’s next on her list, plays into her ideas to make her life easier.

What’s different here is that we’re not going to stay locked up or long. The pair of them are going to be transferred to a maximum security prison in the city, so they’re chained together at the wrist and loaded onto the bus. And you won’t be too surprised to find them ambushed. Yes, Brent’s revolutionary buddies are here to spring her and it’s only the arrival of the army that prompts their retreat. The girls are forced to run the other way and fend for themselves and that’s where most of this film lies.

They hate each other, of course. This hasn’t got anything do with race, though that makes for an easy contrast too. They’re different in a host of ways, each of which add up to wanting to go in a different direction.

Lee has always been poor, so she worked the streets and ended up with a local drug dealer who she put up with until she could steal $40k from him and run. She has to get to Los Robles at a particular time the next day to spirit that away on her journey to freedom.

Karen has always been rich, but discovered a conscience and joined the revolution to help free the island. She’s fighting for the poor but she must be in San Carlos by tomorrow so that guns can get to the right people or something.

The point is that Los Robles is one way and San Carlos the other and this pair are chained together. What happens next? If you think the girls will put aside their differences, you aren’t paying attention. What happens next is what wrestlers would call a Russian chain match!

Inevitably, of course, they’re forced to move in the same direction and we’re in motion. In the context of this film we’ll call them Team A, even though “team” stretches the meaning of the word so acutely that it would be fairer to simply call them the MacGuffin.

Perhaps what makes this film so joyous isn’t just that we have Grier and Markov chained at the wrist, it’s that there are three other teams simply aching to find them and none of them remotely like each other.

Team B, of course, are Brent’s revolutionary brothers, led by Ernesto, who absolutely looks the part in the bearded and camouflaged form of the fabulously named Zaldy Zshornack, one year after The Hot Box, also with Markov. These revolutionaries have plenty of men and plenty of guns, but the girls unwittingly avoid them just as much as the other teams, so elongating the chase all the more.

Team C is led by Vic Cheng, drug dealer and Lee’s former pimp/boyfriend, who wants that $40k back. He’s played by Vic Diaz, last seen as the main gay guard in The Big Bird Cage, who is exquisitely calm here, channelling Peter Lorre as an exotic uber-villain. The first time we see him, he’s laid back getting a pedicure from a topless chick while another sits next to him on a table and a third is undergoing electro-shock torture to her breasts during questioning. He’s definitely not gay here.

That leaves Team D, led by the inestimable Sid Haig, as a cowboy crime boss called Ruben, who listens to country music all the time and dresses like he’s ready for a Nashville square dance. He’s an absolute riot, stealing scenes in abandon. In one, he has both the police chief and his boss drop trow at gunpoint to confirm what his hooker told him about the respective size of their peckers. Oh, but he’s not gay here either, even though he pretended at it so well in The Big Bird Cage.

The finalĂ© at the waterfront totally delivers, with each team gunning for each other team, as the cops wait in the wings and Lee Daniels tries to get to Leonardo’s boat and escape. Oh, and he’s Andres Centenera, the warden from The Big Bird Cage. There are so many members of that cast in this one. I haven’t even got to Ricardo Herrero, the other gay guard in that film, who’s also emphatically not gay this time out, given that he tries to rape Karen Brent.

Grier and Markov are both huge fun here. I liked them as inmates but I liked them as nuns even more, in a succession of glorious scenes. It’s notable that the hooker is the one who has to employ violence to help their situation, not once but three times, before the revolutionary decides that she can help out.

It helps that their story arcs are believable, and they manage to keep the film theirs even with scene-stealing supporting turns from Vic Diaz and Sid Haig. And that makes this a good one, a better double bill with The Big Bird Cage than The Big Doll House ever was.

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