Cleopatra Jones is a well made little movie, which isn’t something you can say for all of its “blaxploitation” brethren. While the genre has its own distinct charms, they often don’t include finely tuned storytelling or high quality filmmaking. This one, though, can stand up side-by-side with the mainstream drive-in fare of its era. More wish fulfillment than earnest tale of urban struggle, this motion picture combines a statuesque leading lady, some decent 1970s karate, the exaggerated antics of Shelley Winters and a surprisingly strong performance by Bernie Casey into a tale that never loses its cool or its sense of humor.
Cleopatra Jones (Tamara Dobson) is a U.S. special agent fighting the international drug trade who is summoned back to Los Angeles to combat the evil machinations of Mommy (Shelley Winters), a drug lord with an explosive temper and a vaudevillian personality. Mommy uses her contacts in law enforcement to put the squeeze on a neighborhood center that helps recovering addicts which just so happens to be run by Jones’ proud and defiant lover, Rueben (Bernie Casey). But Mommy has more to worry about than a super-stylish fed. One of her criminal underlings, Doodlebug Simkins (Antonio Fargas), is rebelling against her rule. That dispute is what ultimately gives Jones, Rueben, the karate-chopping Johnson brothers (Caro Kenyatta and Albert Popwell) and a whole African-American neighborhood of butt-kickers the chance to take down Mommy once and for all.
If you’re wondering where this flick fits in the “blaxploitation” spectrum, the cops here are all white and they’re all basically decent guys except for one racist who’s laughed at more than feared and gets what he deserves in the end. This story runs on white guilt instead of black pride.
Though she’s the star and the title of the show, Cleopatra Jones is a passive bystander for much of the plot. The story largely turns on the ambition and tribulations of Doodlebug Simkins while Jones mostly saunters into situations, dishes out beautiful smiles and beatings with equal relish and then is on her way again. Tamara Dobson has such a striking presence, however, that you barely notice and don’t care.
Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, this is a fun romp that doesn’t carry a lot of social or cultural weight to it. It’s not going to make you think about much, unless it’s the sheer awesomeness of Jones’ sports car. It’s so compact and low to the ground, the driver’s side roof has to swing up so she can get in and out with her headgear or gorgeous afro intact. If you’re looking for a gentle introduction to “blaxploitation” cinema or just a good time, give Cleopatra Jones a try.