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In the rich, if not exactly varied, annals of exploitation movies the ‘women in prison’ flick has always elicited its own cult following within the niche genre. In the days before the eminently more respectable Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme co-wrote the story on which the subsequent screenplay of Black Mama, White Mama (also known as Women In Chains) was based. Just to prove his, er, versatility, Demme directed the somewhat strikingly similar Caged Heat two years later. Still, everyone has to start somewhere (Barry Sonnenfeld was in a crew making porn movies around this time!) and Black Mama, White Mama was the perfect vehicle for the breakout performance that led to Pam Grier being hired by Jack Hill for her subsequent blaxploitation successes. The rest, as the proverb goes, is history...

Black Mama, White Mama
On a South American island the woman’s penitentiary is ready to welcome its latest, and perhaps greatest, cohort of inmates. Daniels (Grier), sometime squeeze to the island’s biggest drug trafficker and pimp and Karen Brent (Markov), leading member of the local anarchist revolutionary group, are the biggest ‘names’ among the fresh meat and take an instant dislike to each other.

Such mutual distrust is further exacerbated, after some gratuitous nudity in the communal showers, natch, by the behaviour of the camp’s commandants. Logan (Burton) is all too keen to sample everything that Daniels has to offer, driving a wedge between her and her erstwhile warden partner Densmore (Borden). Likewise Brent takes Logan’s fancy so Densmore resolves to pack the fighting pair off to a more secure prison to remove the source of the slavering Logan’s temptation.

Binding the battling detainees together, an armed escort sets off across the island. During the journey, Brent’s fanatical followers ambush the convoy, allowing Brent and Daniels to hotfoot it into the jungle before being beaten back by the arrival of heavily armed government reinforcements. Unable to break the bond that shackles them in uncomfortably close proximity, Brent and Daniels duke it out to decide which way their collective future will lie. Brent wants to go north to secure armed supplies for her rag tag troops; Daniels desires a southerly direction to where a waiting boat will escort her (not to mention her stash of stolen money that has incensed her other half) to safety...

Black Mama, White Mama
Black Mama, White Mama is not high art, nor does it make any pretensions of being so; Eddie Romero’s direction, like everything else, is primed to deliver on the cornerstones that the genre dictates. There’s the aforementioned communal shower sequence that ensures that the audience is afforded at least one good ogle at all the leading ladies naughty bits before 10 minutes of the film has elapsed. Sexually ambivalent wardens prowl the dormitories with promises of pain and pleasure in equal doses. The prison canteen dust-up puts in an appearance as does the cliched solitary confinement sequence and the inevitable breathless break for freedom.

No one signing up for a showing of Black Mama, White Mama should expect Shakespeare and in fact the ineptitude of the whole exercise allows a kind of curious charm. A cut-price copy of The Defiant Ones with chicks, this is painfully funny in some parts, just plain painful in others. The revolutionary group make the Keystone Cops look like a credible law enforcement agency, the action scenes consist of the players standing in open ground spraying bullets until some of them belatedly remember their cue to fall over and the degrading attitude to women (even by standards of the day) sex objects or male sexual prey is quite appalling. How anyone is supposed to suspend disbelief that this is really a South American locale and not a Philippines location on the cheap is beyond this reviewer.

Grier and Markov make for a passable central bitchy pairing as they argue, wrestle and pull each other’s hair throughout their cross-country flight but it’s difficult to empathise with either of them. Sid Haig, as so often in C-grade fare like this, steals the show as an outrageous Texan bounty hunter.

Black Mama, White Mama
Romero at least has the sense to keep proceedings short (and relatively sweet) and is assisted by a brilliant but hilariously ill-fitting brassy funk soundtrack by Harry Betts that sounds like it’s been ripped directly from a 1970’s TV cop show. Trash indeed, yet alarmingly entertaining all the same.

It’s another MGM back catalogue transfer bright and strong enough to belie the age and low budget nature of the film. It won’t win any awards but what is most impressive about this MGM effort is the relative lack of print damage; sure the odd scratch, white fleck and dust mark can be found but nowhere near as many as one might have expected. Fleshtones are always well rendered, particularly as the faces of Grier and Markov are constantly glistening during their journey through the jungle and the slight softness can be attributed to age rather than any encoding flaws.

Subtitles, for non-English speakers, are provided in a legible white font. In a nice touch that should really be replicated across other DVD releases, all the written material that appears on screen is also translated, in this case for the benefit of French, German or Dutch viewers.

Black Mama, White Mama
In keeping with previous catalogue releases in the ‘Soul Cinema’ range, this movie is afforded only a mono soundtrack. While some decent channel separation may have been appreciated in the two gun battle set pieces, the process of shooting mute followed by overdubbed dialogue and sound library effects produces a thin audio presentation perhaps best experienced from the centre speaker. Despite the overall effect remaining a little flat, dialogue is always distinct in the narrow mix.

In addition to the original English track, French and German dubs are also included. As far as dubbing efforts go they’re none too bad although unfortunately Grier’s uniquely sassy tones will never be replicated to an entirely satisfactory extent in a foreign tongue.

Just a single extra rears its head in the form of an Original Trailer. Laughably attempting to exaggerate the lascivious aspects of the movie, it’s an ideal opportunity to set the scene before viewing the film proper.

The menus are neither animated nor scored but, like the rest of the MGM’s ‘Soul Cinema’ range, have been decked out in some funky schemes incorporating small stills from the movie.

Black Mama, White Mama
When a film critic states “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore”, it’s usually done so in lamenting a bygone era. Black Mama, White Mama has been endlessly rehashed, heading steadily towards the top shelf in the rental shop, but its’ like has truly passed into history. For fans of celluloid cheese and those who really can’t get enough of Pam Grier, it’s a fantastic post-pub Friday night’s entertainment. For those with any feminist bent at all, stay well away...