Cleopatra Jones: A Fun, Female-Fronted Action Flick
Article by Aaron Haughton
More action and adventure than most blaxploitation films of the era, Cleopatra Jones ventures beyond the city and its ghettos into lands far away. Out of the handful of blaxploitation films we watched in preparation for this month's programming, Cleopatra Jones was by far the most fun and well produced. For such an early entry into the blaxploitation canon, it's positive in its message as well as its depiction of African Americans, which really sets it apart from its peers.
Tamara Dobson stars as Cleopatra Jones, a jive female James Bond and special drug agent for the United States government. She wears sleek and hip clothes, drives a fancy car with a submachine-gun compartment in the front door, and travels all over the world to stomp out drugs at their source. Cleopatra has a loving relationship with Ruben (Bernie Casey), the well-meaning head of a drug rehabilitation clinic in Los Angeles. When Cleopatra travels to Turkey to oversee the destruction of poppy fields owned by Mommy (Shelley Winters) -- a lesbian drug dealer -- Mommy becomes upset. She exacts her revenge on Cleopatra by having the police close down Ruben's drug clinic. Nevertheless, Cleopatra continues to wreak havoc upon Mommy's drug business, and Mommy continues to try to do Cleopatra in, until finally there is a major confrontation between Cleopatra, Mommy and her minions.
In a lot of ways, Cleopatra Jones is a more wholesome version of Pam Grier in Coffy (only released a month apart), as they both sought to put an end to the drug endemic sweeping their neighborhood. However, Cleopatra had an added edge of being the antithesis of James Bond, both in gender and race.
Cleopatra Jones illustrates the film industry’s progression toward gender equality, as Jones is not only feminine and fashionable, but also talented in combat and driving. She's able to outfox and outclass every male she comes in contact with, with the exception of Bernie Casey's Ruben, who is just as strong and moral as Cleopatra and willing to aid her in her battle to squash Mommy's drug ring. Their relationship serves to highlight the equality and mutual respect in a relationship that has both strong female and male counterparts, which was a aspect most blaxploitation films left unexplored. Dobson herself commented, "You go through phases until you find the right situation where a character works for you. A lot of tits and ass movies were made, ballbuster films, exploitation pictures. But I don’t care what anybody calls it. Doing Cleopatra Jones gave me a chance to work. I loved Cleo. She was not only gracious, but strong, clever, intelligent and sexy.”
The film is fast-paced and if the action isn't genuinely thrilling, it's got inadvertently comedic verve to it, especially when it comes to Shelley Winters who is operating at 100 here. Tamara Dobson is excellent in her portrayal of the titular character, and her strong performance is rivaled wondrously by the batshit insane depiction of Shelley Winters' Mommy. Winters' character is arguably one of the more weakly drawn characters, but her commitment to go all in pays off nicely. She really pops off the screen, gnawing all the scenery with her dial turned all the way to 11. She really adds a lot of campy levity to the film, which seems to be having a blast at every turn.
The film is a little less reliant on the soundtrack than most blaxploitation films, which only speaks to its strengths as a film, but the musical sounds that accompany Cleopatra still make an impact when it counts. The song “Theme from Cleopatra Jones”, which is one of our favorites, emphasizes the fantasy of erotic pleasure for men: “You’re so sweet and strong…/Touch me like the desert wind.” In the theme song, the lyrics depict the threat and thrill of her exotic beauty: “You take my pride and you throw it up against the wall/You take me in your arms, baby, and bounce me like a rubber ball…/ Dontcha know that it hurts so good.” Cleopatra is usually adorned with furs and eye make up, which in one hand can represent animalistic sexuality, and on the other, it underscores racial difference and the departure from the traditional long hair as a sign of white, feminine sexual beauty.
The positive message and portrayal of African Americans makes Cleopatra a rare gem to the early movement, and it was probably one of the few films that didn't enrage the NAACP. The character of Cleopatra, along with Pam Grier in Foxy Brown, would serve as the inspiration for Foxy Cleopatra, Beyoncé in Austin Powers: Gold Member. There's a lot of thrills and laughs displayed in this film, and it has one of the greatest ending freeze frames we've ever seen.
Overall, it's a solid film on a B-movie level. What it lacks in quality, it more than makes up for in highly ridiculous fun. It's absolutely a required watch of the genre, and you can watch it right now! The full film is can be viewed on YouTube right here.
Rating 3.5 bitch slaps outta 5.
What do you think? Is Tamara Dobson the next best thing to the blaxploitation films of Pam Grier, or is she just as solid? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well, sucka!