The finesse of the Blaxploitation film genre rises with Cleopatra Jones flair
By Jennifer G. Robinson
“…Cleopatra Jones is sticking her nose in my business!” screeches an irate Shelly Winters as Mommy. And in Mommy’s business does Cleopatra Jones stick!
Tamara Dobson’s undercover agent, Cleopatra Jones is indeed a thorn in drug-lord, Mommy’s side as Jones acts to thwart Mommy’s attempts at keeping a drug-addled stranglehold on all in her territory at home and abroad.
Using the cover of supermodel to travel the world legitimately, Cleopatra Jones oversees the destruction of poppy fields in Turkey and as a result, becomes a target of Mommy’s revenge.
Academy award-winning actress Shelly Winters plays suitably as Mommy and seemed to enjoy the egomaniacal tyrant of the film that had a bloated appetite for money, drugs and other women! Winters, suitably Bond villain-esque, is surrounded by the trappings of ill-gotten wealth and sycophants. Simultaneously then, Tamara Dobson is a consummate Bond-girl, intelligent, sassy and able to ‘handle herself’ with all manner of weapons and she demonstrates this well as Jones, easily makes short-shrift of bad cops and shady goons.
Directed by Jack Starrett (Dukes of Hazzard 1979-’80/Starsky and Hutch 1975-’77), Cleopatra Jones (1973) also starred Bernie Casey, Brenda Sykes and Antonio Fargas and is a classic within the iconic Blaxploitation film genre.
The idea of the ‘good negro’ in film was ceremoniously dumped by the time the Blaxploitation genre came along and societal contexts of the time wouldn’t stand it any other way. After being birthed by director Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Blaxploitation wiped its feet on the tired, stereotypical tropes of the previous 50 decades of Black representation. The dutiful maid, the white-gloved house-boy, humble sharecroppers or religious mammies were cut from celluloid. Blaxploitation’s characters entered the frame loud, self-assured, irreverent, sexual, visceral and righteously angry – the antithesis of the quiet, dutiful, reverential, grateful, seen-but-not-heard characters of previous generations of film representations.
What’s even more daring of the Blaxploitation genre was that it placed Black women as stars of some of the films and Tamara Dobson as Cleopatra Jones was one of them. The queen of them all of course was Pam Grier, but she was closely followed by Denise Nicholas, Vonetta McGee, Gloria Hendry and Marlene Clark all of whom had steady-ish roles in the genre.
It was perhaps the first time ever in movie history that we’d seen Black women in seemingly self-determining roles; punched-in-the-air fists with AK47s in the other, stylish swagger, perfect afros and cleavages to match. But this action hero woman came at a price.
Although it’s nowhere near as long as men, there is a longer list of white women as action hero stars in comparison to Black women – and we’re talking stars which are bankable enough to open films. Think, Kate Beckinsale (Underworld 2003>), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow 2021), Sigourney Weaver (Alien 1979>), Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil 2002>), Linda Hamilton (Terminator 1984>), Demi Moore (GI Jane 1997), Angelina Jolie (Lara Croft 2002>), Brigitte Nielsen, (Red Sonja 1985). You could include Jane Russell as an earliest appearance in 1948’s Paleface and even Doris Day as Calamity Jane (1953) could claim to be an action hero. And that’s just to name a few.
Conversely, Black women action heroes are few – certainly when it comes to opening a mainstream film. You’re more likely to see this representation on contemporary television or on streaming platforms. Some mentions then. Paula Patton (Mission Impossible 2011), Naomi Harris (Skyfall 2012/Bond>), Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok 2017), Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2018/The Harder They Fall 2021), Regina King (Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous 2005/The Harder They Fall 2021), Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy 2014>/Avatar 2009>), Viola Davis (Suicide Squad 2016>), Halle Berry (X-Men 2000>) and finally, The Dora Milaje of the Black Panther (2018>) MCU movies.
When we do see Black women opening mainstream films as action heroes, we get just Viola Davis (The Woman King 2022), Taraji P Henson, (Proud Mary 2018) and Halle Berry (Catwoman 2004). An honorary mention should go to the late musician, Aaliya as Queen Akasha in 2002’s Queen of the Damned. Another special mention is that of the late icon Nichelle Nichols as Star Trek’s Nyota Uhura. Nichols, in her early acting career, appeared in a Blaxploitation film called Truck Turner in 1974. Not quite action but should be mentioned because it builds on the legacy of Blaxploitation’s icon, is Pam Grier appearing in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997’s Jackie Brown.
It could be argued that without the lithe-limbed, karate chopping actions of Blaxploitation’s Dobson, Grier and Hendry et. al., we wouldn’t have The Dora Milaje featured in film. Without Blaxploitation’s pioneering women it would have been harder for Black women to be perceived as being able to embody the dynamic characterisation of an action hero. Blaxploitation’s women set a table for the Black women we see coming through in action-adventure and the science fiction/fantasy genre today.
However, for all its ‘opening doors’ for Black women, they didn’t fare well in the Blaxploitation genre. Their characters often fell into stereotypes of Black womanhood, narrow as it was. More often her driving motives were linked to that of her ‘man’ or ‘community’. Her intentions were never in and of themselves, for herself and so her narrative arch was linked to her subordination of the fulfilment of others. But to be fair that was the case for most women in films, at least at that time. These stereotypes were harsh for Black women as they became an additional layering of the loss of agency over their bodies, which has a disparaging, historical legacy. The loss of autonomy and ownership over her representation and how she wanted the world to see her, was profound. Paradoxically the stereotypes that Blaxploitation sought to circumvent, became writ large as the genre fell into ugly, historical tropes as it portrayed Black women as ‘hoes’, or obedient, do-right-by-her-man-community characters. Many of the scenes portraying Black women were overtly lascivious and entrenched ideology about the disposability of Black women’s bodies alongside their implied availability to all and sundry. These images would have scorched Laura Mulvey’s (she of the theoretical male gaze) eyes!
Cleopatra Jones was one of the few films of the genre, which tempered this imagery. Tamara’s wardrobe changes for just about every scene in Cleopatra Jones is impressive. Each item was sumptuous in its design and detail of the era. Furs, silks, chiffons and wools created the flared trousers, capes, turbans, head-wraps, dresses and other luxurious, sophisticated garments – without, most importantly, being overtly sexualised. Tamara wore the film’s clothing effortlessly as they mirrored her real-life experience as a professional model, where she worked for Vogue, Jet and Essence magazines. Dobson’s gorgeous features were also used in advertising for Chanel, Revlon and Fabergé. In these statement pieces, it’s hard to take your eyes off Tamara. Long, lean and lithe she moves about in each scene in the self-assured, sultry way that you’d expect of cat-walk models.
We can overlook some of the film’s production issues because of its style but a couple of challenges stand out. Whilst it’s getting better, it has been hard to recruit stunts-persons (and lord help us if a woman of colour is needed). Back in those days it was nigh-on impossible! This challenge becomes clear in a scene where Tamara needs to ride a motorcycle uphill. Additionally, some of the fight scenes needed some tighter camera angles to improve the appearance of actors’ fighting ability.
In a world where ‘cats’ don’t have four legs and ‘baby’ can be used as a term of endearment when addressing middle-aged police chiefs, the racially and sexually charged dialogue would put many productions in some serious trouble with censors today!
The last scenes of the film are open ended and presented options for a sequel and it came in the title, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold in 1975. But by this time the tail end of Blaxploitation films had come. Warner Bros and MGM, the studios to make the most money from the genre, called it quits as the films ran out of ideas, saw push-back against the stereotypical imagery of the films and as a result the money-train stopped.
As this genre ebbed, it paved the way for Black directors in ways that wasn’t thought possible in a mainstream way before. Enter Spike Lee, Robert Townsend and John Singleton et. al. by the time the 80s came around.
Blaxploitation’s fashion, music, dialect and other sensibilities had a long-reaching impact not only on the film industry (it kinda helped to save the studios after the swords-n-sandals epics ran out of steam), but on wider society to this day.
Cleopatra Jones forms part of a curation of films celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Blaxploitation film genre titled, Black Again: Fifty Years of Blaxploitation.
Women’s Day, a celebration of the women of the genre will take place on Saturday 7th October.