Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The excellent Starred Up has us thinking back on other exemplary prison dramas.

Black Mama, White Mama (1973)

Black Mama, White Mama is definitely not The Defiant Ones. They’ve got the same basic plot—two prisoners chained together, one black and one white, are forced to cooperate as they flee for their lives. But beyond that, the two films have virtually nothing in common. The Defiant Ones is a “prison movie.” Black Mama, White Mama is a “women-in-prison movie,” which is another thing entirely. The Defiant Ones deals with issues with a capital “I”. Black Mama, White Mama is a cheerfully sleazy romp made with the easily distractible drive-in audience in mind. And no offense to Sidney Poitier, but he’s no Pam Grier.

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As far as exploitation goes, Black Mama, White Mama has quite a pedigree. It was directed by Eddie Romero, a Filipino national treasure who directed political dramas in between churning out potboilers for American International Pictures. The script was based on an original story by a young Jonathan Demme. (Demme would make his directing debut two years later with another women-in-prison picture, Caged Heat.) But Black Mama, White Mama is an exploitation movie—one that wastes no time in getting to the shower scene, complete with a lesbian warden (Lynn Borden) watching the prisoners through a peephole. Then there’s the prison uniforms, which consist of little more than a T-shirt; pants, presumably, have been rendered obsolete by the prison’s ambiguously tropical location, referred to simply as “the island.”

Karen (Margaret Markov) is a rich-girl-turned-revolutionary in the Patty Hearst mold who has just arrived at the prison. She immediately butts heads with fellow inmate Lee (Grier, stealing scenes), a brassy former prostitute locked up on trumped-up drug charges. After a punitive stint in “the box,” a metal structure just large enough for two people to stand back to back, the women are chained together and told they are being transferred, ostensibly to maximum security but really to draw out Karen’s revolutionary buddies. This works better than expected, and Karen and Lee flee in the ensuing chaos. They then spend the rest of the movie running through the Filipino—sorry, “island”—countryside, pursued by the cops, Lee’s scumbag former pimp, and his criminal rival, played by Sid Haig in a loud polyester shirt and cowboy hat.

Some critics’ initial impulse when faced with a movie like this is to condemn it as misogynist trash. That’s way too simplistic. But Black Mama, White Mama eludes a feminist interpretation, too. Yes, this is pretty tame stuff compared to Chained Heat, the Linda Blair vehicle released a decade later, or anything with Ilsa in the title. Yes, our heroines are both independent, resourceful, and know their way around weapons. But do conversations about politics and revolution (this movie passes the Bechdel Test, no problem) between two strong women count if they lead to silly slap fights in their panties? So instead of getting too hung up on politics, viewers should enjoy Black Mama, White Mama on its own merits, both as an early ’70s time capsule and as a fast-paced piece of escapist fun.

Availability: Black Mama, White Mama is available on a stand-alone DVD and a cheaper split DVD with Foxy Brown—both of which can be obtained through Amazon or your local video store—or to rent or purchase through the major digital services.

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