Six-foot-two-inch onetime fashion model Tamara Dobson isn’t quite in the same category as Pam Grier — hell, who is? — but on the strength of the two Cleopatra Jones movies and practically nothing else, she has to rank right up there, just ahead of Jeanne Bell, Teresa Graves, Lola Falana, and Vonetta McGee, as top contender for pretender to the throne of Queen of Blaxploitation.
Or should we say “So-Called Blaxploitation”? Lots of people, including Queen Grier herself, don’t particularly care for the term, with its unfortunate linkage of Black and Exploitation — even though in itself it’s a relatively harmless movie-biz marketing label serving the same function as “biker pic” or “softcore porn.” Whatever it’s called, the flowering of African-American-themed popular movie entertainment in the 1970s remains one of the richest fields of study for the film fanatic, a feast of extravagant action and characterization. But don’t take our word for it. Forget about Ocean’s Twelve and come to the Speakeasy Parkway Theater this Thursday night (9:15) and take a long, hard look at Cleopatra Jones (1973), one of the most riotously entertaining movies you’ll see this year. As a service to readers, here’s a handy guide to the movie — Things to Watch Out For in Cleopatra Jones:
Ms. Dobson herself. The ultimate in Long, Lanky, and Foxy, Baltimore native Dobson, in her finest role, plays the eponymous US special agent assigned to stamp out the illegal drug trade wherever and however. The movie opens like a James Bond flick, with shots of camels and fields of opium poppies in the Turkish outback, just before Cleo puts a torch to the big O (“My jurisdiction extends from Ankara, Turkey to the Watts Towers, baby”). Back in Los Angeles battling a local drug gang as well as corrupt LAPD officers, she makes a grand entrance at the airport with a baggage carousel scuffle, then spends the rest of the movie tooling down the boulevards in her ’73 silver-and-black Corvette Stingray, dispensing karate chops and automatic-weapon fire to goonish baddies, who either run like chickens or stand and die when they see her (“That broad is ten miles of bad road,” one swears). En route, she models a succession of outrageous outfits. On her (38-26-39) they look good. But don’t let her slinky manner fool you. If you’re intent on calling folks “niggers” or dealing dope in the ‘hood, she’ll cool you. Or, as she succinctly puts it: “Yo’ head and yo’ body are gonna need separate maintenance!” Dobson’s Cleo appeals to every taste. Critic Darius James, author of That’s Blaxploitation!, hails her as “Patron Saint of Harlem Drag Queens.” Others just like the way she busts heads.
Shelley Winters. You read it right. In one of her patented hysterical turns, Ms. Winters plays Mommy, your average sadistic lesbian crime boss, the source of the evil drug trade preying on the community. Her other worst offense, aside from screeching her displeasure at her underlings’ ineptitude, taking a bullwhip to her all-male crew, and modeling an anti-Cleopatra wardrobe of hideous clothes, is her habit of turning to a different young, voluptuous “Mommy’s girl” in every scene and saying, “Oh, Eva [or Gerta, or Ursula, or whoever], you’re the only one around here who understands Mommy,” while squeezing the young woman’s butt cheek. You’ll undoubtedly notice that Mommy sports a different fright wig in every scene. This is Shelley at maximum intensity, and a prime artifact — along with The Poseidon Adventure — of her cult.
The music. Jazz trombonist and frequent blaxploitation soundtrack contributor J.J. Johnson composed the slick, sophisticated score, and soul singer Joe Simon contributes the title song. Millie Jackson sings another tune. In all, not much wah-wah pedal guitar; more of a string-section, TV-cop-show urban feel to it. And Brenda Sykes is nothing but fine as Tiffany the nightclub singer.
Antonio Fargas. The great blaxploitation character actor (Shaft, Foxy Brown, Across 110th Street, TV’s Starsky & Hutch) adds an important layer of funk to Cleo’s predicament as LA hustler Doodlebug Simkins. Doodlebug runs his own mini-carnival of sleaze under Mommy’s control, with a pair of comic henchmen named Pickle and Plug, and a hilarious white English butler named Mattingly (played straight by Hedley Mattingly), whose duds rival Mommy’s in ugly-osity. Typical of most of Fargas’ blaxplo characters, Doodlebug’s chief attributes are transparent untrustworthiness and the ability to take a punch.
Max Julien’s screenplay. Julien, best known for his starring role as The Mack (he also was in the Jack Nicholson hippie shockeroo Psych-Out) conceived the Cleopatra Jones character and co-wrote the screenplay. No word on whether he also wrote the radio ad copy: “She handles a car like she handles a gun, she handles a gun like she handles a man, and she handles a man like Cleopatra!”
The stunt driving. Many action flicks throw in a car chase scene up and down the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River, but Cleopatra Jones has what may be one of the finest of them all, rivaling the one in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA. Fittingly, the film climaxes in an auto-wrecking yard.
Bill McKinney as Officer Purdy. Actor McKinney, of the shifty eyes and Southern accent, made a living playing loathsome country types in the ’60s and ’70s. He was the hillbilly rapist in Deliverance. Here, as a bigoted cop dabbling in the dope trade, he stinks up the Rampart division years ahead of time. Check the scene in which Purdy, being surveilled by Cleo’s crew, patronizes the Pussycat Theatre for a little off-duty porno.
The huge cast of flavorful characters. Screenwriters Julien and Sheldon Keller and director Jack Starrett stock their Warner Bros. crime epic with an amazing number of incidental characters, but each and every one has a distinct personality, mostly because of the vivid dialogue. Mommy’s gang is a case in point, especially Snake, played by Christopher Joy (“Don’t rip my doubleknits,” he begs Cleo just before she ruins his shit). Then there’s TV favorite Esther Rolle as kindly Mrs. Johnson, who runs a soul-food cafe with a dice game in back. Mike Warren’s Andy, a dirt-bike racer whose sport provides an excuse for more of Cleo’s cunning stunts, is good enough to deserve his own subplot. But there’s no time. Ditto Plug and Pickle, Lou Crawford the honest cop (Don Frazer), and former Rams running back Bernie Casey as Reuben, Cleo’s old boyfriend (there’s always an old bed buddy in one of these), who runs the antidrug community org.
Cleopatra Jones, in all its wide-screen glory, plays one night only, this Thursday, as part of the Parkway’s Soul Nite IV. Also on the bill: live funk, soul, R&B, and jazz music by the Mocha Velvet Combination. Now if only the Parkway folks could dig up a print of Cleo‘s magnificent Hong Kong martial arts sequel, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold. Par-tay!