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Sunday, March 12, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Cleopatra Jones (1973)

The logic probably seems self-evident. If movies about black male action heroes sell, why wouldn't one about a black female action hero do as well? That the early seventies also brought a new, highly visible form of feminism probably had something to do with this thinking as well. “Cleopatra Jones” was designed to be the ultimate black warrior woman. Co-created by “The Mack's” Max Julien and directed by “Slaughter's” Jack Starrett, the film was first pitched to A.I.P before Warner Brothers scooped up the idea. This would force A.I.P to rush “Coffy” into production, beating “Cleopatra Jones” to theater screens and largely overshadowing this film. Now that we've already witnessed Pam Grier's rise to blaxploitation stardom, what do we make of the subgenre's other heroine?

Cleopatra Jones is a government agent, karate expert, and all around bad-ass. She travels the world, using a supermodeling career as a cover. After destroying a poppy field in Turkey, Jones incurs the wrath of a drug empress known only as Mommy. Using her dirty cops in the force, Mommy strikes at the local community project in Jones' old neighborhood. Cleo's boyfriend, Reuben, is injured by the bad guys. This makes Jones' attack against Mommy's criminal empire even more personal. Soon, she has to deploy all her considerable skills to take out this new enemy, threatening her friends and the black community.

One can't help but compare “Cleopatra Jones” to “Coffy.” Both concern a strong, independent black amazon waging a one woman war against the drug pushers, dirty cops, and mobsters. For both women, it's a personal matter and a communal one. Yet there's a number of important differences. Pam Grier's Coffy was an amateur vigilante, succeeding despite her vulnerabilities. Cleopatra Jones, on the other hand, is a trained action hero. In her first scene, she's bossing around military officers. She swings off the carousel at an airport, kicking the gun out of an assassin's hand. She drives a fast car, knows all the contacts, and is a master in hand-to-hand combat. The character is practically flawless. She single handedly masters nearly every scenario she finds herself in, escaping with ease. There's only one or two scenes where Jones needs any help at all. A seemingly perfect, unstoppable hero doesn't leaves much room for suspense.

Then again, maybe Cleopatra Jones being a neigh invincible superwoman was intentional. Maybe Jones isn't so much the black, female James Bond as she's the black, female Derrick Flint. “Cleopatra Jones” carries a rather intentionally campy tone. Every black character, and many of the white ones, are in awe of Jones. This happens so often, it becomes a running gag. The white police chief that works with Jones frequently attempts to mimic his black friend's speech and gestures. Cleo wears her ridiculous supermodel get-ups throughout her adventures. The climax has her fighting goons in a junk yard, while wearing a trench coat, stockings, and colorful underwear. One of the film's funniest moments has an old lady in a wheelchair pulling a shotgun, revealing herself as another assassin. “Cleopatra Jones” is pretty ridiculous and its clear that's at least partially on purpose.

For its flaws, “Cleopatra Jones” does features some cool action scenes. The stand-out sequence is a car chase, Jones fleeing from the bad guys in her Stingray. The chase eventually spills over into a giant drainage tunnel, the splashing water being well utilized. The scene continues to escalate, throwing in more screeching tires and screaming metal. The shoot-out, which includes the aforementioned old lady attacker, is pretty memorable. The finale involves a weaponized front-end loader and a fight scene on a trash compactor. The action is solid enough but, unlike the colorfully violent “Coffy,” these scenes are also strangely bloodless. If not for some profanity, I'd think the filmmakers were almost seeking out a PG rating.

The lead role was originally offered to Vonetta McGee from “Blacula” and “Hammer.” When she declined, 6 '2 supermodel Tamara Dobson got the part. Dobson doesn't have the immediate charisma of Pam Grier but she's talented nevertheless. She has a clear diction, establishing Jones as someone who is soft spoken because she knows she'll get her way. The marquee name in “Cleopatra Jones” was Shelley Winters, this being one of many low budget exploitation flicks Winters would appear in during the seventies. Winters goes way over the top as Mommy, a foaming, barely sane villain that uses any excuse to mention her lesbian tendencies. Antonio Fargas has a ridiculous role as Doodlebug, a hustler that Jones shakes down for information. (Fargas would essentially reprise the role as Huggy Bear on “Starksy and Hutch,” as well as in a many other blaxploitation movies.) Fans of seventies pop culture will also notice an immediately recognizable cameo from Don Cornelius as – what else? - an MC in a night club.

If I spent too much of this review comparing “Cleopatra Jones” and “Coffy,” I'll have to apologize. A.I.P.'s take on the same avenging woman premise is heads-and-shoulders above this one. Jack Hill's film is way, way more entertaining. For that matter, Jack Starrett's previous flick “Slaughter” is far more satisfying then this one. “Cleopatra Jones,” on the other hand, is a fairly average affair. The story is a bit jumbled, the tone is too jokey, and the hero is too unstoppable. Even though Pam Grier's breakout movie beat this one at the box office, “Cleopatra Jones” still did well enough to spawn a sequel two years later, so I guess somebody must've liked it. [5/10]

[X] Afros or Sideburns
[] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[X] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[X] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang

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