Cleopatra Jones

The sublime and the ridiculous, with extra ridiculous
Released:
1973

Director: Jack Starrett

Starring: Tamara Dobson, Shelley Winters, Antonio Fargas, Bernie Casey

The Setup:

Cleopatra Jones blows by Mommy's poppy field. Mommy wants revenge.

Discussion:

So I recently watched Norman, Is That You?, featuring Tamara Dobson as an enormous prostitute hired to make Redd Foxx’s son straight. And seeing her I thought… you know, I should really see Cleopatra Jones sooner rather than later.

We begin in a poppy field in Turkey. You can tell it’s Turkey because there are camels [not the cigarettes]. Tamara is there as Cleopatra Jones, and she oversees the bombing of the field. Meanwhile, back in the States, Shelley Winters as drug queenpin Mommy, has a shit fit about “her beautiful poppies,” and throws her feet up on her desk for one of her beautiful female lackeys to massage. Shelley, by the way, is wearing the first of a breathtaking series of wigs, this one bright orange. Now, I don’t mean “orange” as in L’Oreal presents Rustic Rouge, I mean “orange” as in Ronald McDonald presents Orange Drink. It is ORANGE. Anyway, so Mommy, a lesbian like many blaxploitation women in power, is now after Cleo [as she is called] and is going to do whatever it takes to get her.

But before this we have had the slow-burning title track, sung by Joe Simon in a lower and slower version than the one I have on my Joe Simon greatest hits CD. We also see that this movie was written by Max Julien, and I was like “Max Julien… Max Julien…” before I realized that he was the STAR of The Mack. So, that’s interesting, too.

We then join a police raid on a drug rehab program that is dear to Cleo’s heart, meant to draw her out. There we can see that the cops are racist to the point that they’re almost uncontrollable by their superiors, which was compelling and a little scary. They plant heroin on one of Cleo’s friends, but everyone attests to the guys’ character and knows he wouldn’t do it, which puts Cleo on the case.

Cleo returns to the States while three agents wait at the airport to take her out. She walks out right in front of them as she’s leaving the plane, making it seem a bit odd a second later when the movie is treating it like she made some cunning escape. But she hasn’t gone—who is that riding the baggage claim conveyor belt to surprise the thugs, who seem capable of looking in only one direction? You guessed it. She unleashes some whup-ass and almost gets shot, then reveals her “Special Agent” ID card to the white cops who assume she must be a hood. This ID card looks slightly less convincing than something you might get out of a supermarket vending machine. Her white police chief asks her “Are you okay?” to which she replies “My body’s okay,” and he responds “It’s magnificent.”

The cops are then going to go bomb some house, but decide not to because that would leave “a lot of people with no place to go.” Isn’t that quaint? Can you imagine Rumsfeld saying we should go destroy some Iraqui city and Bush saying “No, that would leave a lot of people with no place to go?”

Then there’s another raid on another house, where we see a guy freaking out because, we are told, he is experiencing withdrawal, even though a house administrator says “there are no drugs in this house” a few seconds later. Somewhere in here we have been introduced to Doodlebear, a lower-level thug than Mommy, played by Antonio Fargas of Foxy Brown fame. Later the cops interrogate one of Doodlebear’s men, and he pretends not to even know what heroin is, then cracks up, unable to keep a straight face. A few minutes later this guy delivers this funny monologue about how hot Cleopatra is, and that’s the good thing about this movie: a lot of scenes begin just a bit early or go on just a bit longer, and during that time we have some completely peripheral but really funny or interesting character material.

We then hear this song by someone whose voice I recognize, and I’m gonna say Candi Staton, but it’s not in the credits, so I don’t know for sure. It could also be Millie Jackson. There’s another song by the same singer later, and a full gospel performance. That’s what’s great about blaxploitation; you often get all these wonderful bonus musical performances.

SPOILERS > > > Anyway, so Mommy threatens Doodlebear, and he says “If your army messes with my army, you’re going to end up with a lot of army surplus on your hands.” Soon after Doodlebear is out in his limo, explaining that “hair is like a woman. Treat it good and it’ll treat you good.” A few minutes later there’s a big shootout and he and his goons are killed. His girlfriend escapes.

More action ensues. At one point a drug dealer advises someone “don’t rip up my double-knits.” Kids admire Cleo’s car, and marvel at the cutting-edge technology that allows her to have a phone in her car. Then there’s a few more confrontations and finally we’re to the big junkyard showdown with Mommy. Cleo calls her “you fat slimy blubbery bitch,” but soon good prevails and Mommy is dead. Cleo appears at this party in this unfortunate hairdo with feathers sticking out of her hair, and heads off into the sunset to fight more crime.
< < < SPOILERS END

Overall, pretty good! If your movie can’t have quality, at least it can be highly ridiculous, which makes it fun to watch. One thing I like about blaxploitation in general is that it has a sense of humor about itself, so as a white guy I don’t feel too bad or condescending laughing at it. And this movie in particular has all the requisite crazy hairstyles, horrid fashion and amateur kung-fu, but also all those funny little character moments I mentioned earlier, which inspires more affection for it than a more straightforward movie would engender.

The director of this film was also an actor, and directed the pensive biker flick Run, Angel, Run. Tamara Dobson made a sequel to this, but I don’t think it’s available. She appeared in Norman, Is That You?, like I said, then quickly disappeared. She stands 6’2, but doesn’t look it here, though he seemed like a total amazon in Norman.

So there ya go. Totally worth watching, if you like your blaxploitation a little ridiculous and simultaneously fabulous.

Should you watch it?

Yes, it’s a hoot and is very entertaining.

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