I finally got to see that 1973 cult favorite Cleopatra Jones starring Tamara Dobson. It is one of the silliest films I’ve ever seen. It tells the story of Cleo Jones, a secret government agent, who is apparently out to win the Drug War single-handedly. The film starts with her ordering the destruction of $30 million of poppies. The owner of these poppies, drug kingpin Mommy (played with John Waters’ style vigor by Shelley Winters), is determined to take Jones out. So she manages to get Jones’ boyfriend’s rehab shelter shut down in order to tempt Jones back home. Once there, Jones combats repeated attempts by Mommy’s subordinates to kill her. The film climaxes in a karate fight between Jones and Mommy. That’s right: Shelley Winters tries to kick Cleo Jones’ ass. I don’t want to ruin the end because it is very not surprising.
Cleopatra Jones does not take itself very seriously. At least, I hope it doesn’t. The film is filled with understated lines like, “It’s been real heavy around here.” But even if these lines were meant to be serious at the time, now they are charming. “No matter how many times I see a cat go through withdrawals, it’s always a heavy trip. That cat’s 15 years old, Cleo.” I don’t know about you, but I can dig it. It’s solid.
All the scenes with Mother were certainly meant to be funny. Why would Shelley Winters be cast? She’s naturally funny. And the character is over the top. She is forever abusing her young subordinates—except one. She has a young woman who seems only to be there to serve her drinks and put up with being pinched in the ass, because Mother is as much a lesbian as possible in a 1973 movie. In this way, the film is pretty open minded.
According the Wikipedia, Cleopatra Jones is a blaxploitation film. I don’t think this is exactly true. It is certainly no Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. It is more the co-opting of the form. It is directed by the very white Jack “Gabby Johnson” Starrett. Most of the crew is white. It was funded by Warner Brothers. And it goes out of its way to show “good” white characters. I don’t mean all of this as an insult however. The film is definitely steeped in the black pride and feminist movements. Even the choice to make the drug kingpin an over-sexed lesbian has to be applauded. And what I especially appreciate is that the black community is very much defined in terms of Malcolm X’s vision. They are solving their own problems despite the inept and hostile meddling of the white culture.
As pure entertainment, Cleopatra Jones works. This is especially true if you like this genre of film and this period of American history. There is something extremely positive about its outlook. It really does portray a time when people were optimistic—when it looked like the future would go in the right direction. Today, it is hard to find that kind of thing.