Jun 6, 2019

On Blu-ray: Tamara Dobson as the Heroic Cleopatra Jones (1973)

The first time I watched Black Panther (2018) and saw Danai Gurira in full warrior garb, grasping a spear and riding the top of a car with blazing confidence, I thought to myself, “There’s Cleopatra!” It immediately brought me back to an early scene in Cleopatra Jones (1973) where the titular U.S. Special Agent stands astride the belt of a baggage carousel as she sneaks up on the hapless henchmen she’s about to pulverize. When she follows up on the phone with a police captain, he notably doesn’t ask right away if she is okay, and when he does, he says it like he already knows the answer. After all, no one ever asked Charles Bronson that question.

There aren’t many heroines as uncompromisingly powerful as Tamara Dobson was in this classic action film, certainly not many at all starring black women. It’s a great film: entertaining, stylish and expert in weaving a strong social message into its fast-paced action, but I’ll always love it most for the power of its star.

Now available in a good-looking Blu-ray from Warner Archive, I recently rewatched this amazing film. As much as it is of its time, it is still ahead of the curve in the way it gives ladies, both evil and righteous, the upper hand.

Smart, strong, determined Cleopatra isn’t raped, menaced or undermined by anyone. Her man (a reassuring Bernie Casey as the delightfully-named Reuben Masters) doesn’t tell her to settle down and keep house for him. He encourages her ambitions to save the world and knows that if he didn’t approve, she wouldn’t give a damn. Even when Cleo’s finally captured, she doesn’t break a sweat and no one dares to lay hands on her with any conviction. If only this had been the start of many films with heroines who possessed her power and autonomy. Imagine what the world, and cinema, would be.

Shelley Winters is a torrent of rage as the evil boss lady Mommy. This was a magnificent period for the actress, because she ripped into her over-the-top exploitation flick roles with unselfconscious and endlessly entertaining vigor. Here she’s a horny, sloppy, magnificent mess; an outrageous Disney villain for adults. Cleopatra’s cool is the perfect counterpart to Winters’ complete lack of composure.

There is a plot. Cleopatra destroys Mommy’s poppy field in Turkey. Mommy retaliates by siccing corrupt policemen on the community home run by Reuben. Cleo returns from Turkey for revenge and a stand-off with Mommy. It’s a good framework for lots of action, one fantastic car chase, and the sight of Ms. Jones parading around in outrageous costumes that reinforce her superiority over anyone who dares to try her.

I wish there were more films with heroines as uncompromising as Cleopatra Jones. I’m as grateful for this film as I am entertained by it.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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