When I came across the line in Raffi’s piece on Chagaga decrying the women-in-prison genre of film, I said to Raffi, wistfully, “But I love Black Mama, White Mama…” To be honest, I only vaguely remembered liking it; it’s been some years since I’ve seen it, and I sometimes take satisfaction in contrariness. On re-watch, I happily found myself in the same uncomfortable position as the viewer of Chagaga: trying to work through an ambiguous text that simultaneously critiques and clings to the worst elements of the culture that produced it.
Women-in-prison movies really are awful. In the first place, these movies’ primary function is to display the objectified female body; writing, acting and cinematography are distinctly secondary. Secondly, the device by which it delivers “T and A” taps into that unfortunately deep vein of American culture that confuses violence with sex. Women-in-prison movies are about as unsubtle expression of rape culture as you’re going to get. If female prisoners are not outright raped by the guards, they are pushed into prostitution or spied upon in the shower in a way that inherently relies on their submission, often by violence, to the power of the prison. These sexual images go hand in hand with images of outright violence: scenes of torture, scenes of hard labor, fights, beatings, etcetera.
“Black Mama, White Mama” has all of these terrible genre elements within it. Lee Daniels (played by Pam Grier), a prostitute, and Karen Brent (played by Margaret Markov), a Marxist revolutionary, are sent to a woman’s prison on a Philippine island. The prison is run by a pair of lecherous lesbian wardens, who reward prisoners who submit to them sexually, and discipline those who don’t. There is an abusive intake sequence, a prolonged shower scene that includes voyeurism by the wardens, a catfight, and a torture sequence that functions mainly as an excuse to expose Pam Grier’s breasts. On the surface, “Black Mama, White Mama” is a textbook women-in-prison movie.
Yet, there are cracks in this surface. Take the voyeurism scene, for example. Not only do we see the women in the shower, we also see the warden watching the women in the shower, who is of course unaware of our position as viewers of her own voyeurism. At one point, the movie cuts rapidly between the women in the shower and the warden watching and masturbating, intensifying our consciousness that we are watching a manipulated image. The attentive viewer is forced to ask a version of Juvenal’s old, uncomfortable question: who is watching us watchers? Another striking scene in the prison catches one of the female wardens crying after Lee rejects her drunken advances. It’s a very strange scene in a genre that depends on fantasies of power, and it’s never fully explained. It sends a striking message that all power is relative and that the dominance of the female warden is confined to the prison–elsewhere, she is still just a woman, her value dependent on her attractiveness to potential partners.
Then, of course, there is the fact that Lee and Karen eventually “leave” the prison. That is to say, in a way they do and in a way they don’t. They manage to escape the prison proper, but they emerge chained to each other and on the run from both criminals and the law. The rest of the film explores Foucault’s network of disciplines (neatly symbolized by the chain), as the characters’ interactions are all shaped by power relations. Karen needs a colonial ground on which to establish her fantasy Marxist state, and she–quite literally, since she’s chained to her–needs the subaltern Lee’s cooperation. Lee’s only desire is to leave the islands with the money she stole from her drug lord Filipino boyfriend, a plan that is at best indifferent to the oppression of native Filipinos, and at worst contributes to it, by profiting off of their drug addiction. Both Lee and Karen gain power by letting themselves be exploited sexually. Lee used her relationship with her drug lord ex-boyfriend to make her fortune, and we infer that there is a sexual relationship between Karen and the male head of the guerillas; when he identifies a pair of underpants as Karen’s, another guerilla quite comically asks if he knew they were hers “by size or by smell.”
The complex politics of gender are not shunt aside, but actively engaged. In one scene, Ruben (played by Sid Haig), an American cowboy who runs a gang on the island and has been contracted to find the fugitives, visits one of his Filipino underlings, the father of two attractive daughters. To his apparent dismay, his daughters immediately submit to Ruben’s sexual demands. Meanwhile, the underling, sitting just in the next room, pleads for his life as one of Ruben’s enforcers scrutinizes his totals. He is clearly uncomfortable with the actions of his daughters, but at the same time, he uses his daughters for leverage, openly pointing out to the enforcer that Ruben likes his daughters. And his daughters also know precisely what they are doing. Their sexuality is their advantage, and they aim to use it. When he finally walks in on them, they demand that he leave so that they can get dressed. Their power comes at the expense of his paternal power, and his power is both augmented and reduced by their power, and all of their power is inevitably relative to Ruben’s power.
Almost despite itself, the film delivers a striking message about the limits of individual power. The central image of the film is the scene in which the two women are caught by a village blacksmith, Luis. Luis is aware that they are wanted by the police/criminals and is ready to turn them in. In exchange for letting them escape, Karen offers to have sex with him; it is a vile arrangement, but it is also one by which both parties would gain. Luis mulls it over, but then refuses it on the principle that he “takes what he wants,” and tries to rape Karen. The women manage to murder him, and the lesson is clear: attempts to maximize personal gains often backfire. When Lee’s character insists that she’s “been a revolutionary since I was thirteen, the first time I was paid to do it,” it strikes me as fairly hollow reasoning–her revolution depended on her self-exploitation and submission, and we have no reason to believe that she’ll ever really manage to liberate herself. The movie ends by literally asking this question of the value of personal liberation versus the value of revolutionary change.
In the final scene, following the death of Karen, her boyfriend, the drug lord and a myriad of revolutionaries and drug pushers, the police captain who arrives on the scene notes that he’ll be promoted to Major by dinner. He then says, “It’s good to win, isn’t it?” The question seems to me to be quite sincere.
However, just because the movie critiques its own problems, that doesn’t mean that the movie is absolved of all guilt. The genre aspects of the film are still problematic. The film is still primarily aimed at exploiting women’s bodies and appealing to male rape fantasies. That remains a part of the movie, and it remains disturbing.
But I have to admit, the problems with “Black Mama, White Mama” are part of its appeal. I dislike films (think “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”) that try to deal with race and gender by only saying the right things, as if we only had to repeat the same condescending white liberal mantras enough times and we’d be suddenly liberated. Often, in those films, true engagement with race and gender is avoided, and we get hurried off to the post-racial society. “Black Mama, White Mama,” on the other hand, is a film meant for the same kind of market that it quietly critiques. It simultaneously titillates and problematizes; it shows us something we want to see and then subtly asks why we want to see it. As a result, watching “Black Mama, White Mama” is often uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and generally a messy tangle of reactions. Isn’t that ultimately what we want from art about race and gender?