TCM Underground: Black Mama White Mama (1973) and Hit Man (1972)

Black Mama White Mama (1973)

I tend to love exploitation films because they’re, if anything else, honest about themselves.  Some exploitation films have important things to say, but they know what they are:  Trash.  And they’re proud of it.  There’s a huge difference between a piece of trash that might have something interesting to say about the world we live in and a piece of shit film masquerading itself as high art.  That is to say, a film like Serbian Film insists that it’s an allegory but doesn’t have the courage to admit that it exists, first and foremost, for shock value.  Exploitation without the self-awareness is just garbage.  Self-serious, pretentious garbage.  The difference between trash and garbage is the juicy putrefaction at its core.

A film like Black Mama White Mama pulls in its audience by promising loads of skin, lesbian eroticism, violence, explosions and great, profane dialogue like, “Some jive-ass revolution don’t mean shit to me!” courtesy of Pam Grier.  And the film delivers on all those fronts.  But if it ends up having something to say about sexism, ironically using an exploitation film as its platform, or has opinions on racism in America, well, that’s just super.  It’s like a little added bonus to have cheap thrills with a brain.

Much of Black Mama White Mama depends on its script, which was co-written by Jonathan Demme, no stranger to these kinds of “women in prison” films shot for pennies in the Philippines.  Jonathan Demme is also one of the many filmmakers who would then go on to work under Roger Corman and then go on to “legitimate” filmmaking, eventually winning an Oscar for Best Director for The Silence of the Lambs.

“Women in prison” type exploitation films are always a bit squicky to me.  It’s just not my genre.  I get uncomfortable watching movies that make sexual assault out to be titillating.  And don’t even get me started on the bizarre sub-genre that fetishizes Nazi concentration camps.  So, watching this movie tonight I was like, “Oh, lord, here we go,” as in the first ten minutes we are introduced to our characters, who get into a playful scuffle with a hose while in the shower, as a malicious guard watches them and masturbates.

The movie then, thankfully, shifts gears when revolutionaries disrupt a bus transfer to a maximum security prison, the malicious masturbating guard is killed, and our two main characters, one black and one white, must evade capture while chained together, sort of like a sleazy remake of The Defiant Ones with Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier.

Pam Grier plays “Black Mama” aka Lee Daniels (no, not the guy who directed The Butler), a tough, no-nonsense prostitute who just stole $40,000 from her pimp.

Margaret Markov plays “White Mama” aka Karen Brent, a woman tied to revolutionary guerrillas, the same revolutionaries responsible for their escape.

As these two women travel across the jungle terrain in search of freedom, they are hunted down by not only the police and a criminal they’ve enlisted the help of, but Lee’s old pimp, and the revolutionaries who want to ensure Karen’s safety.  With three groups all converging on one common goal, with different intentions in mind, you just know that it’s going to end with a bunch of guns pointed at each other.  Quentin Tarantino has clearly studied this movie, using a similar showdown in True Romance and borrowing a musical cue for Kill Bill, in the Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves.

Along the way, Lee and Karen do what they must in order to survive.  They club people, kill people (only when they’re really bad, these women are our heroes and need to have some sort of virtue while allowing blood to spills freely), and even for a time pretend to be a pair of nuns.

A movie like this needs to have two magnetic leads, and Black Mama White Mama does, particularly in Pam Grier, who I’ve been a fan of for a very long time.  She steals the show.  But Sid Haig, as Ruben, the criminal who’s been tasked by the police to help hunt these women down, comes pretty damn close to stealing the show himself, instead settling for being the best thing in any scene not featuring Pam Grier.  He’s having the time of his life decked out in garish cowboy clothing and chewing scenery.

Black Mama White Mama comes close to greatness, its only real crime is that it has some interesting ideas that never really pay off–like a man who clearly wants revenge against Ruben for having sex with his two daughters.  It seems like something is being set up, some sort of bloody revenge, but then the film just kind of rushes past it.

All in all, Black Mama White Mama must settle for being good.  Pretty damn good.  It’s one of the better exploitation films out there, never committing the ultimate sin any piece of trash cinema is dead in the water for:  Being boring.  I don’t know how it happens, but it does, with alarming frequency.  A lot of movies of this type can be quite dull, hoping that tits, blood and corny dialogue are enough to float it for it’s 80-something-minute run time.  In addition to the tits, blood and corny dialogue, you still need to fulfill the basic elements of filmmaking by giving us characters to care about, decent-looking production values and at least one good villain.  Black Mama White Mama delivers.

Hit Man (1972)

The story behind the making of Hit Man is that the star of the film, Bernie Casey (who I recognize best from both Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) wanted to direct the film.  George Armitage (best known by me for directing Grosse Pointe Blank) championed Casey to direct, but the producer (Gene Corman, Roger Corman’s younger brother) didn’t feel comfortable taking a chance on an unproven director.  Armitage agreed to direct the film, allowing a huge amount of the dialogue to be improvised by the actors.

The film begins with Tyrone Tackett (Casey) arriving to L.A. from Oakland, looking to find out who’s responsible for the suspicious accidental death of his brother.  This leads Tyrone through the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles’s porn industry.  He threatens and beats his way through the ranks, following whatever clues he has available to him, exploiting violence in his favor.

If Hit Man sounds like Get Carter, it’s because it’s basically the same movie, based on the same script.  Armitage was given a script to rewrite, and only after he completed it, he was told that it was a previously-filmed story owned by MGM, now re-set to take place within the African American community.

Hit Man is pretty badass.  Bernie Casey has a natural charm and it’s surprising he wasn’t in more movies.  Watching him in this, he really proves himself as a leading man.  He has an effortless way with balancing menace and humor.  In any given scene, he can go through an entire spectrum of emotions, all without ever losing his cool.  And in a moment where he sticks a double-barreled shotgun out of the window of his car and fires into the windshield of an oncoming vehicle that’s been pestering him, it’s nothing short of awesome.

I don’t like Hit Man quite as much as I did Black Mama White Mama and that’s only because Hit Man sort of loses its way at the end.  It becomes something of an incomprehensible bloodbath.  People getting shot left and right with very, very graphic results.  It reminded me of if someone saw the ending to The Godfather and sort of missed the point.  The entire film building up to it was so enthralling with the way it unraveled the mystery surrounding Tyrone’s brother’s death and it seemed like the end-result to Hit Man belonged to another movie entirely.

I was under the impression that Pam Grier was going to be in this movie a lot more, since it was a kind of Pam Grier double feature and she gets second-billing on the credits (as Pamela Grier), but she’s probably only in this movie for about ten minutes total.  But, that’s okay.  She’s great in it and she… uh… well, there’s no delicate way to put this, but she gets eaten by a lion.  That’s right.  She has a pretty original death scene that I, in no way, could have predicted.

So, next week on TCM Underground, I’m not sure what’s going on.  TCM doesn’t tweet until the day-of, and they don’t have their own schedule, so until then I think it might be a double-feature with Michael Parks in both films, but neither of them sounded very Underground-y.  So… we shall see what next week holds in store for us!