Review: Cleopatra Jones (1973)

When it comes to Blaxploitation cinema, it's my opinion that there are two distinct types of films within the genre. In one camp are the films born out of the exploitation scene of the late sixties and early seventies, produced independently and often gritty, authentic, and occasionally even shocking. In the other camp are the films that came slightly later, when the major film studios recognized the trend and started to pursue the genre themselves. These big studio Blaxploitation films often feature slick cinematography, established talent from within the studio system on both sides of the camera, and sometimes feature a more sanitized, broader approach to the genre.

1973's Cleopatra Jones falls into the latter category. Produced by Warner Brothers, this PG-rated outing stars Tamara Dobson (just one year removed from her major motion picture debut in the ensemble cop film Fuzz) as the title character, a sassy, street-wise fox (complete with afro) who just so happens to work for the government in the war against drugs. When we first meet Cleopatra, she's laying waste to a poppy field far from the borders of the United States; but her real trouble starts when she discovers that the battle against drugs must not only be fought on foreign soil, but in her very own hometown neighborhood.

Cleopatra Jones is ultimately the story of a female secret agent returning home to clean up the streets she grew up on. She's like a Blaxploitation version of Roger Moore's James Bond, impeccably-tailored in the latest fashions, driving the best cars (in this film, it's a gorgeous Corvette), and always a step ahead of the bad guys, be they drug dealers at home or racist good ol' boy cops. The fight against the forces of evil manifests itself in the form of shoot-outs, hand-to-hand martial arts combat, high speed car chases, and even a showdown in a junkyard with crushing consequences.

There's quite a bit to like in Cleopatra Jones, starting with Tamara Dobson. Though she was a newcomer to the screen, she seems confident and has a star stature (she was 6' 2") that would serve her well over the next decade, including a sequel to this film (Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold) as well as various television shows like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. There are lots of other familiar faces in this film, including the great Bernie Casey (Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde), Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch), Bill McKinney (Deliverance), Esther Rolle (the mom from Good Times), and even the legendary host of Soul Train, Don Cornelius, as himself. Shelley Winters (The Poseidon Adventure) chews scenery as a drug lord with a foul mouth and lesbian tendencies. In a movie that seems inspired by James Bond, Winters is an over-the-top Bond villain, although one whose domain is urban in nature.

Cleopatra Jones is never far from an action scene, making sure that the pace is always moving along briskly. There's one particular car chase near the middle of the film that is quite stunning in its mounting and execution. It starts in the city streets (with Miss Cleo driving her classy Corvette, of course), moves through the warehouse district, through the water-logged arteries of the Los Angeles river, and back through the streets again. This high-speed pursuit is one of the most impressive aspects of the film. This era of cinema was a gold mine for high-speed pursuit, and yet this one stands out as memorable and impressive, even after all these years.

The movie is also gorgeously photographed, with beautiful cinematography by David M. Walsh, the same man who shot Monte Walsh in 1970 and Evel Knievel in 1971. He makes everything look like a million bucks, and brings the kind of big-budget production value that was rare for Blaxploitation films. This movie reportedly cost a little over three million to make (modest even by 1973 standards), but it looks like ten times that amount. Credit also goes to the director, Jack Starrett, a man known predominantly for his contributions to westerns and as his turn as one of the small-town cops that makes life a living hell for John Rambo in 1982's First Blood. You would never know from first impressions that this Blaxploitation film was made by the same director of Cry Blood, Apache, but he does a great job with the material, presumably because he had previously cut his teeth on another Blaxploitation classic, Slaughter, starring Jim Brown, just one year prior.

Cleopatra Jones comes to us courtesy of Warner Archive, who have been doing a great job lately of getting some of these genre highlights out of the vaults and into the hands of cinephiles. Their recent announcement of Shaft's Big Score and Shaft in Africa indicate that this trend will continue, and it's welcome news. This film looks tremendous in high definition, with beautiful, saturated colors and a very fine grain pattern that is never distracting. I have my fingers crossed that the 1975 sequel, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, will be headed to Blu-ray soon.

While not as instantly-classic as other examples of the genre like Coffy or Foxy Brown, there's quite a bit to admire about Cleopatra Jones: she's a black woman in a position of tremendous power who has no trouble taking care of herself. In 1973, that was absolutely revolutionary...hey, it still is today. Dobson's character remains an icon all these years later, and it's worth pointing out that Beyonce plays a similar agent named Foxxy Cleopatra in 2002's Austin Powers in Goldmember, honoring in name both Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson for the trails they blazed. Cleopatra Jones is a fun, action-packed example of big studio Blaxploitation, and one that I'm thrilled to have in my collection.



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