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Apparently, I have a jones for Joneses here at Black History Mumf. Two years ago, I did a piece on Carmen Jones, and today brings another Jones whose first name begins with C. In 1973, Max Julien gave two gifts to the Blaxsplotation genre: his turn in front of the camera as Goldie the pimp in The Mack, and his stint behind the typewriter scripting Cleopatra Jones with Sheldon Keller. The Mack won’t win over any feminists, but they’d have a hard time finding fault with Ms. Jones. She’s a CIA agent, drives a kick ass car, looks hella fashionable, knows how to shoot a gun and does the kind of karate Rudy Ray Moore only dreamt about in his movies. Cleopatra Jones is her own woman. As played by 6’2” model Tamara Dobson, Cleo is also fine beyond human comprehension.
Pam Grier brought us a hot cup of Coffy, and she and Cleo had something in common besides being fearless and fine in ‘73. Both had it in for the drug suppliers who kept the hood junked up on Horse. Coffy took her anti-heroin vengeance to the pushers, sawed off shotgun in hand and double D guns in tandem. Cleopatra Jones took her vengeance to the top, to the Mr. Big of the heroin trade in Watts. Or should I say Ms. Big: Cleo’s nemesis is two time Oscar winner, Shelley Winters. Fresh off the Poseidon, Ms. Winters came to play. As Mommy, Shelley steals the picture whenever she’s on, no small feat considering the dialogue she has to utter and the fact that she’s up against a former model.
Cleopatra Jones opens in a desert locale, into which our heroine strolls ready to command fire raining from the sky. She’s in Afghanistan, and as she comes over a hill to meet her contacts, hundreds of poppy plants fill the screen. “How much do you think it is worth?” her contact asks.
“30 million dollars on the street,” says Cleo. “30 million dollars worth of shit that ain’t going in some kid’s veins. Burn it.” Military planes blow the fields to smithereens.
Back in the states, Mommy is not happy to hear that her bread and butter has been turned to burnt toast and melted puddles. Winters bursts on the screen screaming obscenity and outrage. The only thing louder than her voice is her hair, a shocking mass of red wig that’s brighter than pimp attire. Mommy left me breathless with her offensive, hilarious rant:
“That bitch! That goddamn Black bitch!” she screams. “How dare she mess around with my poppies?! My God! Everyone in Turkey must be flyin’! I’ll kill her! I WILL kill her! 30 million dollars up in smoke! Goddamn her, that troublemaking coon!!”
I will not lie: I rewound the last part of that speech over and over, laughing until my face was as red as Shelley’s hair. “That troublemaking coon!” I almost needed medical attention.
Cleo also almost needs medical attention. After Mommy forces the cops to raid Cleo’s pet project, a house for recovering drug addicts run by her man, Bernie Casey, Mommy sends her goons to meet “that troublemaking coon” at the airport when she flies home to investigate. One goon sports a fake British accent and a hairstyle that looks like a straw mop glued itself to his head. Cleo not only opens a can of karate Whup Ass on these goons, she blows one away on the airport luggage carousel. When the cops come, Cleo coolly shows them her CIA badge, then walks off.
The police chief, or Lieu as Cleo calls him, informs her that he didn’t order the raid on her house, and he’s willing to help the young former addict whom the cops arrested after planting drugs on him. Cleo in exchange offers a stalemate between Lieu and her man. Casey is planning to burn the town down if the cops try to close down his organization. Cleo gives Lieu 72 hours to find out who ordered the hit.
Regardless of his apologies, Cleo is still pissed at the police lieutenant, whom she thought was on her side, and Mommy is mad at Straw Mop Head for letting Cleo live. Winters beats him worse than Cleo did. “How was I to know she’d be on the bloody baggage carousel?” he pleads. “I told you when, and I told you where, and I told you how to get that bitch and you still blew it!” screams Mommy as she punches him repeatedly—and hard. He is saved only by one of Mommy’s lovely female assistants, whom Mommy loves in ways that are not maternal. “You’re the only one ‘round here gives a shit about Mommy,” she coos, grabbing the assistant’s ass, then shaking her hand as if the ass were too hot to handle.
Cleo, with a little help from Millie Jackson on the soundtrack, diffuses Casey’s anger. Meanwhile, Mommy’s best dope pusher, Doodlebug, is planning to quit Mommy’s organization and branch out on his own. Doodlebug is played by Huggy Bear himself, Antonio Fargas. Fargas’ appearance in this film must be seen to be believed. With his upside down trapezoid-shaped Afro and his slender frame, Fargas looks like an exclamation point. If I graded this film on some kind of Afrometer. Cleo’s afro would get a 10 and Fargas’ a 3. Despite that, Doodlebug lectures us on the importance of keeping your coif up to speed:
“Hair's like a woman,” he begins. “You treat it good and it treats you good. Ain't that right honey? You hear what I'm saying? Yeah, you got to hold it, caress it, and love it. And if your hair gets out of line you take a scissor and say, ‘Hair I'ma cut you.’"
Doodlebug Simpkins is a character. He has a White chauffeur with a fake British accent whose job is to drive Doodilebug’s woman around on shopping excursions. When Cleo brings a warning to Doodlebug, she comments on the driver. “A White chauffeur, and all this? What’s next, Doodlebug? Two White iron jockeys on the lawn?” Doodlebug tells her, erroneously, that he had nothing to do with the set-up and raid. Cleo knows better, and vows to return.
To assist her, both with Doodlebug and Mommy, Cleo goes to Esther Rolle’s restaurant-slash-dice shooting parlor to borrow her two sons. Played by Caro Kenyatta and Albert Popwell, these two provide backup and intentional comedy relief. They’re “the Johnson brothers, Matt and Melvin.” Much of their dialogue, and the dialogue uttered by secondary characters, is damn near impossible to decipher unless you’re Barbara Billingsley in Airplane.
Keenen Ivory Wayans has seen this movie. He got his sister to pay homage to a musical number in this film in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (she sings a whacked out version of “When The Saints Go Marching In”; the singer in Cleopatra Jones sings “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”) and a lot of Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge in Hollywood Shuffle plays like the scene where Cleo scares info out of a drug pusher by breaking the high heels off his alligator shoes. The drug dealer’s dialogue is priceless—and I dare you make sense of it. Coffy would have blown this guy’s head off; Cleo forces him at knifepoint to flush his own stash after destroying all his horrific 70’s clothing.
Doodlebug visits Mommy, telling her he quits. Winters is dressed like a drag queen (she gets as many wardrobe changes as the lead), so the scene plays like a debate between Divine and a punctuation mark. Only Shelley Winters could use the word Doodlebug in a sentence and make it not sound shitty. She tells her henchmen “Doodlebug hasn’t paid us a nickel in a week, and you know why? Because he does not fear us!!” And now he’s quitting. “See you around, Super Honky!” is Doodlebug’s kiss-off. Mommy kisses him back later, with a huge tow truck that kills him and his chauffeur. Doodlebug’s woman escapes, which does little to change Mommy’s disposition. Once again, Straw Mop Head fails to complete his mission for Mommy.
Cleo teams up with Doodlebug’s gal, whom she finds hiding out in church. Mommy finds them too: her henchmen appear the church and take the women to a salvage lot. Cleo finds Mommy exacting her revenge on Straw Mop Head, tricking him into a car and then crushing him. “That Tony,” she says after the execution, “he was always a sweet little candy ass!” The showdown between Cleo and Mommy is disappointing. Winters deserves better. Cleo kicks her ass, and while Winters gets in one good punch, the entire altercation is lacking the excitement I wanted to see.
Perhaps the only people who could be mad at Cleopatra Jones is PETA. Animals WERE harmed during the making of this feature! Dobson appears several times in fur items, one of which, I kid you not, looks like roadkill. Even I, a person who really doesn't care too much about fur, had to say "damn!" In the opening scene, she must have 7,000 fur tails on the bottom of her coat. Those military planes didn't just blow up Mommy's Poppies, they must have also blown up the zoo.
The movie ends by hinting at a sequel that came two years later: Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold. That trades Cleopatra Jones’ PG-rated positivity for a seedier, R-rated tale of nasty though lackluster fun despite the presence of Three’s Company’s Norman Fell and the exotic Hong Kong locale. In both films, the late Tamara Dobson is a force to be reckoned with, kicking ass, taking names, and looking hot while doing it. (She manages to look fierce in Casino of Gold even if it looks like Stevie Wonder did her makeup.) Statuesque and well-spoken, she’s a stunning screen presence. I knew I was in love with her in 1975, when I saw this film at the Pix theater. When she opened the interior panel on the door of her Corvette to reveal an arsenal that would make the NRA proud, my heart belonged to her.
Your Homework Assignment:
Pick out your 'Fro and watch this on Netfix Instant.