Cleopatra Jones (1973)

These days and enjoyable game to play, especially by people born 20 to 30 years after the fact, is to look back on film that could not be made today.  Because cultural morals shift over time, sometimes to more liberal and sometimes to more conservative, what is permissible to do in real life, or to portray in art, changes drastically. 

Much is made of movies that were made to be outright offensive, like Blazing Saddles, in order to get their point across.  What most people don't understand is that Mel Brooks was crossing some lines you didn't cross in 1974, and the fact that Richard Pryor was the cowriter is one of the few reasons the movie ever got made in the first place.  It also helped that, at the time, the United States was finally seeing the first mainstream acceptance of African-American culture since the early part of the 20th century saw advances up to the point that Woodrow Wilson kicked race relations back to the 1850s. There had been black renaissance movements in the past, but they were generally limited to the black community itself.  The rise of blaxploitation films in the 1970s proved that, in some ways, this country was willing to be a little less divided.

Despite basic plots and a reliance on stereotypes of ghetto culture, the movies allowed black actors and directors an access to mainstream cinema that they had largely been denied in the past.  Largely it was also done without making compromises to the dominant white culture.  It was a way of saying, "Here we are, this is who we are, and you will accept us as an equal part of your country."  Although certain films stand out the genre itself was starting to slowly transition from crime films to movies that were more culturally aware. 

Still, it was the 1970s, so the blaxploitation films were largely male-dominated.  Women were there as plot points and to sex things up, just like they were in almost every other film of the time.  However, at some point in genre film making, there are inevitably a handful of films featuring a female protagonist.  And, as feminism was starting to take hold, Cleopatra Jones ended up having to be so many times greater than Shaft in her achievements that I am sure the decision was made early on to not take this as seriously as some of the other films.  Not to say there wasn't room for serious blaxploitation films with a woman as the star - Coffey and Foxy Brown are great examples - but the entire atmosphere this time around is more Modesty Blaise with a bit of a feel-good "do something for your community" message.

Cleopatra Jones (Tamar Dobson) is a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency, helping the United States and its allies in the war on drugs.  She manages to do her part by burning up 30 million dollars worth of poppies in Turkey.  Unfortunately, those poppies belong to a Los Angeles crime boss named Mommy (Shelly Winters), and she decides that Jones must be erased.  She pull strings with the L.A.P.D. to have a rehab house run by Jones's boyfriend Reuben (Bernie Casey) raided and, lo and behold, they just manage to find heroin on one of the people living there. 

Jones comes back to L.A. and confronts her police contact Crawford (Dan Frazer), and then begins an investigation in earnest.  It doesn't take long for her to know who is behind it, because Mommy's bumbling thugs botch an assassination attempt at the airport and later fail get rid of her after a car chase through the L.A. River.  To make matters worse for Mommy, one of her most important dealers - Doodlebug Simkins (Antonio Fargas) - has decided that with Mommy in Jones's sites it is best for him to break all ties and go off on his own.  As can be expected, every step brings a final confrontation between Cleopatra and Mommy that much closer.

There are many ways in which this movie could not be made these days, but they are not what one would immediately think.  The obvious is that Mommy is made a lesbian just to make her that much more evil, something that definitely wouldn't fly today, but Winters's over-the-top performance, now as then, might still overcome that with a few tweaks.  The main problem is that Cleopatra Jones herself is made too perfect - everyone guy, young and old, white or black, moons after her.  She is beloved no matter what community she enters, can drive a fast car as easily as ride a motorbike (and beat a professional Moto-Cross rider's time up a hill).  She knows karate, and can kick criminal but without mussing her giant afro.

That means the movie would ultimately run into a number of cultural gatekeepers blasting the movie before it ever came out, to the point where it might not even be considered.  I may be wrong, since a modern version is at least in development, but if the current backlash against the current Star Wars trilogy is any sign, whatever good is in the movie would get lost in screams of "Mary Sue".  If Cleopatra Jones took itself in any way or shape too seriously it would have stumbled, and it walks a line as it is, especially since writer Max Julien ended up making her a bit too perfect.

The reason it still works is that Tamara Dobson, though not a great actress by any definition, is still unquestionably fit for the role.  Being a fashion model she knows how to show off the outlandish Italian-designed costumes she wears throughout the film, and being six-foot-two she is also able to come across as believable when it comes to physical prowess.  It doesn't hurt that an actual martial arts trainer was added so, unlike many of these films, she and others that are supposed to know martial arts actually perform real moves rather than just randomly flailing about.  The only sad thing with that is that director Jack Starrett, like most Hollywood directors, doesn't know how to properly frame or film a martial arts fight scene.

Not that Starrett didn't know what he was doing otherwise, being no stranger to the blaxploitation genre; he had directed the Jim Brown vehicle Slaughter the year before.  He is still great at filming more typical Hollywood scenes, and one of the most important in the early 1970s was the car chase.  Cleopatra Jones contains not just one of the best examples from this time period, but one of the earliest (possibly the first) filmed around the Sixth Street Viaduct.  Since then car chases through the L.A. River have been a staple, in everything from Repo Man  to the fictional Los Santos of Grand Theft Auto V.  This one, however, is a hard one to top, especially since Jones's Corvette (especially made to accommodate her height, hair and all) deserves to be up there with the rest of the classic movie cars.

That brings me to why I like this movie so much, despite the fact there are some cringeworthy parts (the kids saying, "Right on, sweet sister!", for instance) and a few instances of not much happening that seem to have been left in to get the movie as close to 90 minutes as possible.  Shelly Winters is a screeching hoot as Mommy, while Antonio Fargas is her equal in camping it up as Doodlebug.  Wisely, the two share a scene, both of them chewing the scenery so much that I'm surprised the film wasn't ragged around the edges. 

Is this anywhere near as gritty as Shaft or Superfly?  No, not at all.  As much as I like it, it is one of the reasons I would suggest seeing many of the other films first, including Pam Grier in Foxy Brown and Coffey, since if you start with Cleopatra Jones and think that those two are going to be similar due to a female lead, you will be in for a rude awakening.  Cleopatra Jones, as a character, was meant to be a positive influence, and so, sexy as Dobson is, she remains largely remote except for a sweet (and surprisingly chaste) love scene with Reuben.  Pam Grier's characters go through things, and sometimes the movies she was in are a tough watch, largely for what her characters endure.  Often these movies do not pull any punches, which was a trend for most cinema of the time.  Even with a PG rating, Cleopatra Jones still has its share of violence and racial slurs that would possibly push it over the edge into R territory with the current culture.

Could it be made today?  Well, give her a few flaws, give her some more backstory and, just maybe.  We'll see if the remake ever appears.  Problem is, these movies belong to a time and a place, something many writers and directors have sadly found out when trying to drag them into the modern era.  The truth is that it seems like an exercise in futility - Dobson and Winters are both gone, and Antonio Fargas stopped playing these roles decades ago.  It was not only the time and place that made these movies what they were, but the people involved, and I can't imagine someone making Cleopatra Jones today without the entire cast mugging for the camera so everyone knows how ironic they are and how they're in on the joke.  Truth is, everyone was in on the joke the first time around, but that didn't keep it from still being a great action film at its heart.

Cleopatra Jones (1973)
Time: 89 minutes
Starring: Tamara Dobson, Shelly Winters, Antonio Fargas, Bernie Casey
Director: Jack Starrett


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