Monday, June 5, 2017


Beginning with SHAFT (1971), the 1970s gave rise to a cycle of unique sub-genre of films dubbed "blaxploitation". These films were generally low budget action/crime movies that featured mostly black actors and actresses as both heroes and villains. Marketed mostly to young, black urban audiences, the films also enjoyed success on the then still existent drive-in circuit.

Blaxploitation elements were a heavy influence in the first Roger Moore James Bond film, LIVE AND LET DIE (1973). There were even blaxploitation horror films such as BLACULA (1972) and BLACKENSTEIN (1973).  Some of the films, such as COFFY (1973) and FOXY BROWN (1974) featured female protagonists, as did CLEOPATRA JONES (1973).

The statuesque (6 feet 2 inches) Tamara Dobson stars as Cleopatra Jones, a federal agent who is depicted as a female James Bond. She's an expert martial artist who drives a souped up Corvette (with a personalized "CLEO" license plate) that comes with a small arsenal of hand guns hidden inside a door panel. What, no ejector seat? Cleopatra is focused on wiping out the international drug trade as shown in the opening sequence which finds her overseeing the destruction of a poppy crop in Turkey.

The action then moves to Los Angeles where we're introduced to the bizarre master criminal "Mommy" (Shelley Winters), the kingpin (queenpin?) of the LA drug cartel. Winters plays Mommy with an over-the-top flourish that recalls her turn as Ma Parker on the BATMAN TV show in 1966. She appears in a different wig and outfit in every scene, she's surrounded by feckless male thugs and a variety of comely young lasses, all of which are groped by Mommy.

Mommy orders a police raid on a drug recovery house run by Cleopatra's boyfriend, Reuben Masters (Bernie Casey). One of the cops in the raid is the legendary Bill McKinney, who played the hillbilly cornholer in DELIVERANCE (1972) and appeared in six Clint Eastwood films including THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976). Heroin is planted on an innocent young man and the pressure is on to shut down the facility once and for all. At the same time,a subordinate of Mommy's, Doodlebug Simpkins (Antonio Fargas, who played Huggy Bear on TV's STARSKY AND HUTCH), wants to set up his own criminal empire. He's aided by two goons and a white, effeminate man-servant.

Various attempts are made on Cleopatra's life, including a sniper attack and an ambush that leads to a well-staged car chase through the water drainage ditches of Los Angeles. There are gun battles, martial arts fights, and a nice musical number emceed by the one and only Don Cornelius (host of TV's SOUL TRAIN) before the big showdown in an automobile junk yard.

The script by Max Julien and Sheldon Keller is about as solid as a loaf of bread. There are long stretches of the film in which nothing that really advances the plot is happening. It's cinematic filler, shot on location around Los Angeles with crowds of curious on-lookers glimpsed in the backgrounds of several scenes.

But a coherent plot isn't the point of CLEOPATRA JONES. The focus here is Cleo herself, an empowered black woman who is far from a damsel in distress. She doesn't need a man to rescue her from danger. She's extremely competent and assured, a strong, independent woman who commands respect from the white police officers as well as the black youths undergoing treatment at the rehab house. This was a radical message to embed in a low-budget action movie aimed at inner city black audiences. Cleopatra Jones is a true hero in every sense of the word.

Cleo returned in CLEOPATRA JONES IN THE CASINO OF GOLD (1975). The blaxploitation cycle eventually ran it's course, eventually dying out in 1979. But while they were in their prime, blaxploitation films provided work to an entire generation of black actors and actresses, produced dozens of entertaining films and created some enduring cinematic icons.

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