Welcome back to Pop Pedestal, the blog series about pop culture personalities we admire. Today’s tribute goes to Cleopatra “Cleo” Jones, the super sleek superwoman who defied the blaxploitation genre of the early ’70s. Move over Foxy. Cleo’s in town.
Pedestal profile: Cleopatra Jones (Tamara Dobson) is a U.S. special agent on a mission to undermine the nation’s powerful drug cartels. Cleo’s motive in combating the cartels has less to do with saving the world than it does from her just wanting to keep the crank and crack off the streets in Watts. In 1973’s Cleopatra Jones, the heroine’s debut, Cleo’s drug rehab refuge is shaken up by a couple of dirty cops in cahoots with the nasty drug-wielding Mommy (Shelley Winters), Cleo’s arch rival. Mommy seeks revenge after Cleo orders Turkish officials to destroy $30 million of Mommy’s poppy fields in Turkey. After things get personal, Cleo gets resourceful. Cleo uses her agent privilege and street smarts to take Mommy down, fighting off her minions one roundhouse kick at a time.
Cleo returns in 1975’s Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold to rescue two agent friends caught up in an undercover Hong Kong drug deal gone wrong. Cleo kicks butt against another drug lord who calls herself the Dragon Lady, albeit with less fervor, more gun shooting, and alongside Mi Ling Fong, a special agent lady who oversees an undercover crime-fighting crew in Hong Kong.
Here’s a redone trailer to the Cleopatra Jones, posted on YouTube by filmbuff2000:
Admirable qualities: Cleopatra Jones puts a whole new spin on superwoman. She is a fierce, globe-trekking crime fighter with a super conscience. Cleo has got to be the craftiest, classiest heroine to ever appear on screen. She fires wit quicker than her enemies fire guns, stunning them just long enough into a did-she-say-what-I-think-she-said stupor to assume her martial arts stance before the brawls and shootouts begin. How she’s able to keep headscarves and fedoras on her head while battling the bad guys and gals is a wonder in itself—Cleopatra Jones’ fashions are flashy-forward and quite furry.
Cleo doesn’t do what she does for love, money, or power. She’s a humanitarian, promoting a life without the drugs, crime, and consequences common on her neighborhood’s streets. Cleo’s companion, Reuben Masters (Bernie Casey) helps her run the B & S drug rehab refuge in Watts when she’s busy battling big time pushers and international drug lords.
The only things the Cleopatra Jones’ movies lack are nudity, sex, and a plot that revolves around fighting the Man, common in most blaxploitation movies of the ’70s. This is Cleopatra Jones’ crowning glory. Watching Cleopatra Jones on screen is like witnessing Hollywood’s women-in-action potential had La La Land paid more attention back in the day. Granted, the Jones two-film series isn’t free from the flagrant displays of sexist and racist stereotypes embedded in blaxploitation movies; plenty of cat calls, jive talk, and bigot banter pop up in the script. Yet, the Cleo series did something new in cinema by emphasizing positivity in black communities and positivity in the perceptions of black women on screen. Stephane Dunn, professor and author of Baad Bitches” & Sassy Supermamas, sums up Cleopatra Jones influence nicely:
Cleopatra Jones stands as the quintessential example of the potential of a new sensibility for shaping the black female presence in popular cinema […] She embodies an image rarely assigned to black women in cultural productions.
Cleo’s influence: Cleo’s underrated. It’s disappointing to note the dearth of Cleopatra Jones’ web links aside from the mega movie databases and media sites online. In 2002 Beyoncé stars as ‘Foxxy Cleopatra’ in Austin Powers Goldmember; however, Beyoncé emulates more Foxy than Cleo. Ladybug Mecca, of early 90s neo jazz hip hop trio Digable Planets, gives a shout out to Cleo in the uber cool single Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat) [lyrics here].
That’s not all: Tamara Dobson did her own makeup in Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, which is beyond cool and may have influenced Grace Jones’ late ’70s and early ’80s aesthetic. Dobson was a fashion model before landing the role of Cleopatra Jones. She is also reportedly the tallest leading lady on screen, standing 6’2” (Awesome). Here’s Cleopatra Jones in 1975’s Casino of Gold.
Tamara Dobson starred in a few more movies, including a role alongside famed Exorcist star Linda Blair in Chained Heat, a supposedly gritty and gross B-grade movie from the early 80s [I haven’t seen it]. In October 2006, Dobson died from health complications (click here for a mediocre AP obituary printed in The New York Times). She would have been 67 this year.
Think of Cleopatra Jones when: You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place and want to kick some major butt on your way out with great power and poise. Or, when you’re planning a blaxploitation movie marathon with your best gal friends.
Further reading: Baad Bitches & Sassy Supermamas: Black Power Action Films by Stephane Dunn (University of Illinois Press).