Cleopatra Jones ★★★★

The so-called “blaxploitation” genre erupted in the early 1970s and in retrospect was a brief but formidable assertion of Afro-American cinema as a viable competitor to the so-called mainstream. These showed that films could successfully target an Afro-American audience and still be commercial performers, attracting even white audiences in the process. Often featuring notable soundtracks these films frequently tackled so-called black stereotypes in an urban setting and regularly developed subtexts concerning racism, drug culture and the reality of ghetto life: cultural appraisal. Although many of the characters celebrated in these films were amoral and violent figures, just as viable, however, were a number of works that sought to introduce affirmative role-models for the Afro-American community, even if in doing so they often resorted to escapist fantasy. Hence, the clash between Hollywood escapism and the renaissance of black urban culture made for some unusual blaxploitation films, among them Cleopatra Jones from cult director Jack Starrett, previously better known for his biker movies although he had earlier helmed the provocative Slaughter making superb use of Jim Brown. Cleopatra Jones’ mix of glamorous gender-based escapism and recognizable, albeit clichéd, social context proved another box-office hit and spawned an odd sequel whose disappointing returns ended any hope of further works.

Cleopatra Jones concerns the special government agent of the title (played by the former model Tamara Dobson). Following the destruction of a Turkish opium field ferocious lesbian drug lord Mommy (Shelley Winters in a truly colorful and memorable performance) orders her police underlings to harass the Afro-American community center headed by Dobson’s socially conscientious boyfriend (Bernie Casey). When Dobson returns from her international duties she tries to sort out the mess although she is now the number one enemy of the drug trade in general and of Winters in particular, as she is angered by any rival to her matriarchal criminal empire. Winters correspondingly arranges for several assassination attempts, one of which injures someone close to Dobson. Dobson is determined that justice be done but with a lack of proper support from the white authorities, she turns to local contacts within the black and street communities. Winters has additional problems to contend with when one of her drug dealers intends to go solo and virtually declares a war against her. Winters can have none of this defiance, however, and arranges for some further retribution as Dobson turns her interest on a corrupt policeman (Bill McKinney). Finally Dobson goes after Winters, leading to a most unusual car junkyard climax. In summary, the plot synopsis does not do justice to this most entertaining fantasy of matriarchal empowerment.

Cleopatra Jones in design clearly reflects the genres most popular at that time in American film. The title character is thus a suave, female James Bond figure at a time when the Bond franchise was courting both an American and specifically black American audience with Live and Let Die. Likewise the incorporation of kung-fu sequences speaks to the popularity of the martial arts films with Afro-American audiences in such works as Enter the Dragon and Black Belt Jones. Correspondingly, it touches on social ingredients familiar to the target audience – primarily the growing influence of drugs in Afro-American culture and the racist oppression of minorities by a stubborn white male authority. The ultimate villain, however, is signaled as monstrous not by her race alone but by her sexual orientation. As a powerful lesbian she has no need for male authority and is free to manipulate it to her will, in the process turning the film into a bizarre post-feminist struggle. In this, Cleopatra Jones is ultimately so much more than its rather conventional ingredients as it deliberately emphasizes the downright peculiar opposition between the Afro-American heterosexual Dobson and the monstrous white lesbian Winters as a battle for feminist superiority. In this opposition the film both acknowledges that powerful women may have a place within Patriarchy and yet also posits a Matriarchal order superceding that male authority.

In that, Cleopatra Jones presents an escapist fantasy of a world in which women are the most active figures in society, in effect charged with the moral and legal burden of American justice in opposition to the ironic freedom of criminal enterprise (the drug trade). Men in this film are mostly passive figures who rely on such strong women to get things done. Thus, it is in the clever insinuation that “Mommy” represents the beloved American “mom” that the film reveals a slyly subversive agenda to its otherwise often cartoonish sense of action fantasy. In its way thus, the film is in part an exploration of how traditional patriarchal structures and role-models would function, and indeed disintegrate, if they have to answer to dominant women usually connoted as “other” or “different” in reactionary patriarchal responses to the feminist social upheavals of the era. The magic of the film thus is that it posits a world in which the so-called “other” is in effect the dominant gender, effectively inverting patriarchal responsibilities. Although the film is conventional in terms of its theme of racial suppression it is provocative in its caricatured analysis of gender, being an effective companion to the works of Pam Grier in the same period, though eschewing their more realistic social basis. Its championing of the liberation of black women from racial and cultural impositions upon them may be a fantasy but was important within the evolving blaxploitation genre.