CLEOPATRA JONES is a blaxploitation movie that goes above and beyond the call of duty. It has all the funk, swagger and aspirational badassness that you hope for in the genre, but even more heightened. That’s both literal and figurative; Warner Brothers’ answer to American International’s success with Pam Grier vehicles was to hire the regal 6′ 2″ model Tamara Dobson, teach her some martial arts and have her play an unfuckwithable special agent.
I didn’t notice them specifying which agency she works for, her ID literally just says “SPECIAL AGENT,” with a presidential seal. And we can’t say “secret agent” either because, like James Bond, most people know who she is, and she sure as shit doesn’t try to keep a low profile. Her fashion is flagrantly eye catching and she drives a badass Corvette with mag wheels that says her name on the plates and sometimes spews fire out of the back.
To my knowledge CLEOPATRA JONES is the only blaxploitation movie where the first shot is of a camel. Cleo helicopters into a base in Turkey. She steps out in a fur-lined, hooded cape and walks through rows of leaders gathered to give her a queen’s welcome. She flew in to personally give the order to drop bombs on a poppy field. “That’s right, baby. $30 million worth of shit that ain’t goin into some kid’s veins. Burn it.”
It cuts straight from the flaming flower fields to bright-red-haired dope queenpin Mommy (Shelley Winters, THE DELTA FORCE) screaming “WHAAAAAAAT!? That bitch! That god damned black bitch!” She lives in a luxury home with a crew of men in ties who call her “Mommy,” “Mother” and “darling,” and suffer the wrath of her constant screaming tantrums and, in one scene, repeated face punches. But she’s always nice to her ladies, like Eve (Lisa Farringer, COFFY, SLAUGHTER’S BIG RIP-OFF, TRUCK TURNER), who brings her brandy and massages her feet during tirades.
Mommy apparently lives in the same L.A. neighborhood as Cleo, so to get her to come home for revenge purposes she gets the cops to raid Cleo’s “favorite charity,” an African-American-staffed center for recovering addicts run by her boyfriend Reuben (Bernie Casey, DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE, UNDER SIEGE). The all white cops kick the doors in and threaten everybody there, with one particularly aggressive agitator named Purdy (Bill McKinney, DELIVERANCE, THE OUTFIT, CARNY) pumping his shotgun and calling Reuben “boy” and shit. (As is blaxploitation tradition, there’s one nice, reasonable white cop [Stafford Morgan, THE STUNT MAN] trying to calm everyone else down – always the hardest part to believe.)
In these first three sequences we’ve learned alot about how the neighborhood operates. White criminals live luxurious lifestyles on the money from selling drugs to the black community. Black activists try to stop the addiction, sometimes thwarted by the corrupt, racist, white police force. And Cleo, the baddest lady to ever come out of here, cares so much she travels across the planet to stop the drugs at their source. She dresses and drives fancy but she sure hasn’t forgotten where she came from. While she does have exotic 007-esque globetrotting adventures, we see that they can be about looking out for the neighborhood. All politics is local.
As she says later, “My jurisdiction extends from Ankara, Turkey to Watts Tower, baby.”
There’s also a racial hierarchy to the drug gangs. Doodlebug Simkins (Antonio Fargas, before he played Huggy Bear) is so cool Don Cornelius (as himself) calls him “my man” on stage at a night club. As the ultimate status symbol he has a white, British limo driver named Mattingly (Hedley Mattingly, LOST HORIZON) – Cleo jokes that he should add “two white lawn jockeys on the lawn.”
Yet Mommy gets to boss Doodlebug around, and when he quits (and calls her “Super Honky”) she has him killed. I guess he was overconfident when he boasted “If Mommy wants trouble, I’m not exactly known as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms.” That’s assuming Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm gets machine gunned by two guys while she’s wearing a white suit. I’ve never seen it.
It’s hard to say, but CLEOPATRA JONES makes TNT JACKSON look like LEGALLY BLOND 2.
(I don’t know.)
According to the book Women of Blaxploitation: How the Black Action Film Heroine Changed American Popular Culture by Yvonne D. Sims, Dobson had a disdain for Pam Grier, in part because she felt her movies used nudity in an exploitative way. She refused to appear at the same events as Grier, and obviously never co-starred with her, which is too bad. They’re related but not identical icons of black female power and beauty, they would’ve looked cool together!
By the way, a famous tagline was “She’s 6′ 2″ of dynamite,” but I noticed when she holds up her ID it says she’s 5’10”!
She looks so tall, though, I’m sticking with the larger estimate. It seems like a joke now, but I love how her name combines historic royalty and modern-African-American, afrocentrism and “around the way”ness. This is a good description of the woman who receives worshipful awe from the men and children who see her. They discuss her after she leaves – “Man, that’s some kind of woman,” or they tell her they’re proud of her or she’s important to their people. At the end when she’s heading overseas for another mission they all hold their fists up and tell her “Right on!” Earlier a little boy gave her the same salute and said “Right on, sweet sister!”
It’s not catcalling, because they’re not under any illusions they have power over her. Cleo delivers on the action. When she gets home she’s ambushed by Mommy’s men, she beats up two and kills one on the luggage carousel. And all she has to do is flash her ID to the cops and she’s free. She has a good car chase that goes through the L.A. River – and by the way, did I mention there’s a cache of guns hidden in at least one of the car doors?
She gets attacked by two guys dressed as an elderly couple, she gets to do some impressive kicks (including kicking a guy through a wall) and smacking around Mommy in a junkyard. And she has local martial arts pals called the Johnson Brothers (Caro Kenyatta [TRADER HORN] and Albert Popwell [DIRTY HARRY]) who she can call on to find information, back her up in fights and return for the sequel.
There’s a credit for “Hapkido Karate – Master Bong Soo Han, Korea,” who was the founder of the International Hapkido Federation. He got involved in movies when Tom Laughlin saw a demonstration and approached him about choreographing BILLY JACK. He also appeared in THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK, but to many he’s most famous for THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, in which his character is building a fighting force of extra-ordinary magnitude. Incidentally, that movie also references this one with a trailer called CLEOPATRA SCHWARTZ.
Stunt coordinator is “Ernest Robinson, Black Stuntmen’s Association,” who did HOOPER and was Philip Michael Thomas’s stunt double on Miami Vice. He also appeared on an episode as Tubbs’s older brother Rafael of the NYPD.
Those guys are behind Cleo’s asskicking, but it seems to me the most notable credit is Giorgio di Sant’Angelo for Tamara Dobson. The two CLEOPATRA JONES movies are his only movie work – he was a fashion designer known for “ethnic-inspired looks” and incorporating hippie culture and knitwear into his work.
I’m not a fashion guy but you gotta respect greatness when you see it, so here I believe I have cataloged most or all of Cleo’s outfits in this movie.
Like all good blaxploitation movies there’s a funky as hell musical score. This one is by legendary bebop trombonist J.J. Johnson. He also did MAN AND BOY, WILLIE DYNAMITE and (most famously) ACROSS 110TH STREET. It can’t match the COFFY soundtrack, so Grier has nothing to worry about there, but it’s pretty good stuff.
Around here we know director Jack Starrett mainly for playing Art Galt, the Hope, Washington Sheriff’s Department sergeant who falls out of the helicopter in FIRST BLOOD. But he also directed NAM’S ANGELS, SLAUGHTER, RACE WITH THE DEVIL and WALKING TALL: FINAL CHAPTER. Notably, the script is by Max Julien, the star and writer of THE MACK, along with veteran TV comedy writer Sheldon Keller. I can only make assumptions about who’s responsible for what, but together they came up with some good humor, social awareness and fun outlandishness inside an easy-to-swallow formula package.
I love this movie! I wish there were four or five of them.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.