Black Mama, White Mama (Arrow Video Blu-Ray Review)

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[wptab name=’Black Mama, White Mama Review’]

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Black Mama, White Mama is effectively a retreatment of 1958’s The Defiant Ones, a tale about two escaped prison convicts – one black, one white – who have to work together because they’re chained to each other. The similarities end with the overarching plot device, though, and H. R. Christian’s screenplay is a much more exploitative version than The Defiant Ones would have been allowed during its release; but the idea that black and white must get along despite racial prejudices is the main theme of both, and that’s sort of depressing considering Black Mama White Mama came out nearly two decades later. Still, there’s a little bit more to director Eddie Romero’s film than meets the eye, a complicated exploration of the fascism rampant on an Asian island – not named, but much like its Philippines filming location – and the revolutionaries who want to end the oppression, along with the local drug and harem trades happening under government observation.

Those ideas are directly tied to the two main protagonists, extradited to an island correctional facility among other women. Lee (Pam Grier) is a former prostitute/drug smuggler working for Vic Cheng (Vic Diaz), looking to escape the island with the cash that she stole from him; Karen (Margaret Markov) is a local white revolutionary working with Ernesto (Zaldy Zshornack) and his team to overthrow the corrupt government and police force led by Galindo (Alfonso Carvajal). Both of them are targeted by local bad guys, whether it be Vic’s henchman looking to get Lee back for the money and for her body or the police force’s hiring of local gang leader Ruben (Sid Haig), a violent rebel in a rivalry with Vic. While Black Mama, White Mama initially begins with a women-in-prison formula involving lesbianism, its main conceit eventually shifts to exploration of fascism in this predominantly corrupt area.

There’s a lot going on within the film’s plot despite the relative simplicity of the story itself. Romero follows Karen and Lee first and foremost as they break out of prison during a revolutionary-led gunfight and travel across the island in search of freeing themselves from their shackles. Along the way, Karen and Lee trade blows and then, eventually, take pleasure in each other’s company, lessening the tension between them until they’re working together to steal food, evade scent-sniffing dogs, and make it to a boat to get Lee off of the island. Christian’s script leans heavier on the socio-political aspects of the island nation, however, and ultimately Black Mama, White Mama barely succeeds in selling how Karen and Lee come to give up their preconceived notions of the other.

The intricate plotting also leaves a lot of tedious build-up, since Romero has to alternate between Galindo and Cruz (Eddie Garcia) on the police force, Ernesto’s attempts to track Karen, Ruben’s involvement in the proceedings, and Vic’s tyrannic reign over his harem. The multiple narrative viewpoints in Black Mama, White Mama often get in the way of the standard exploitative action of the women in chains, and the film tends to feel quite a bit longer than its condensed 90 minute runtime.

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Still, credit where it’s due – Romero’s work shouldn’t be undersold, because eventually these loosely connected throughlines come to a head during a final climactic showdown, first with Ruben and his crew and then with Vic’s guerrilla fighters. The payoff is worth the long lead-up, too, especially during the film’s final scene. Though Lee makes it out alive, Vic’s crew manages to kill most of the revolutionaries, including Karen; as Cruz stands over her body, he remarks that he’ll soon be made a Major for it. It’s a pretty devastating sequence that belies the film’s playful exploitative nature throughout, a quick glimpse into the darker political motivations at work besides racial equality.

Black Mama, White Mama is an early example of Pam Grier’s work, and it’s not one where her acting really shines – in fact, it’s interesting that her most well-known film, Coffy, released just months after this one, because her work in that has a maturity she lacks in this film. Markov and Haig really carry the film; Markov has a pathos to her character that’s immediately likable, and Haig adopts a tried-and-true crazed persona that has always worked for him.

It’s unfortunate that Black Mama, White Mama can’t find a better balance in its pacing throughout the film, because there’s definitely a lull in its middle act. Still, everything comes together for an enjoyable showdown that emphasizes the political undertones of Christian’s script. Add to it the women-in-prison format of the first act and Black Mama, White Mama remains a solid, if somewhat uneven, film.[/wptab] [wptab name=’Video/Audio Quality’]

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Arrow Video’s HD transfer of Black Mama, White Mama looks quite good, especially the colors of the lush Philippines setting. Skin colors are normal and blacks have good contrast, including an intentionally dark scene where Lynn Borden hides in a cubby peeping on unsuspecting prison women in the showers. The transfer is akin to all of Arrow’s other works and ultimately, the film looks very good.

Audio sounds a bit flat in the uncompressed mono PCM track, with some of the dialogue taking on an echoing with low tones. Part of that probably comes from the source audio, especially in cavernous areas like the prison, but the low dialogue does make for some issues at times. Still, most of the sound effects and soundtrack sound very good. [/wptab] [wptab name=’Special Features Review’]

As always, Arrow gives Black Mama, White Mama fine treatment with a full-motion menu with audio and clips from the film, as well as reversible cover artwork. Arrow Video offers a number of interviews for this Blu-Ray release; the first is a new interview with Margaret Markov, around 14 minutes, who discusses her work on a number of films including Black Mama, White Mama and another Pam Grier flick, The Arena. Sid Haig also provides a near-15 minute interview and talks about the various films that he shot in the Philippines around the same time as Black Mama, White Mama. Finally, an archival interview with director Eddie Romero rounds out the interview clips – again, around 15 minutes, with some interesting information about the film despite rougher audio quality. An audio commentary from Andrew Leavold is also provided, along with English subtitles.

A gallery including pressbook images and a trailer are also included.[/wptab] [end]

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