Cleopatra Jones: Black, Beautiful, and Bond Cleopatra Jones was released
later in the blaxploitation cycle and therefore displayed most elements
of previous blaxploitation films. The film revolves around the character
of Cleopatra Jones, a "special agent" for the United States government.
Tamara Dobson is Cleopatra Jones. The film has Cleo globetrotting to
Turkey where she oversees the destruction of large poppy fields controlled by
the lesbian drug lord, Mommy (played by Shelly Winters). Mommy becomes outraged
and enacts revenge against
Cleo by having the police bust a drug rehab center run by Cleo's
boyfriend. Cleo continues to get into Mommy's business and Mommy keeps
on trying to have Cleo killed. The film ends with a typical brawl of
good versus evil with Cleo dispatching Mommy and her agents.
As is the case with most spy thrillers after the success of the early
Bond movies, Cleopatra Jones has borrowed much from 007. Quite
obviously, Cleo is a special agent working to undermine the drug trade
in the United States. The similarities with 007 were missed by no one
with critics calling her "a black distaff James Bond" (Mebane 105). Like
Bond, Cleo is not a stealthy character who tries to infiltrate the
underworld by losing her identity. Bond seldom tried to hide his
identity, often using his real name during introductions, and all the
Bond films rely on his being recognized as 007. Cleo, like Bond, never goes
undercover. She relies on her flamboyant attributes and her ability to be
recognized to disrupt the plans of her enemies. Like Bond, Cleo drives a
flashy car outfitted with hidden compartments which hold machine guns
and various weapons.
In odd ways, Cleo's outrageous outfits are also analogous with Bond's
dinner jackets and playboy wardrobe. Cleo's three foot hat brims and
flowing fur robes are treated with respect and awe within the film, just
as Bond's refinements are looked upon as the height of good taste. Also,
both their wardrobes exude each one's sexuality but to different
degrees. While Bond is often decked out in refined clothing that
reflects his English-ness and power as man, Cleo's clothes exhibit her
as sexually available. Her frequent use of fur also links her sexuality
to black misrepresentations of animality.
Tamara Dobson in Cleopatra Jones. Cleopatra Jones and The Casino of Gold is another excellent example of
the influence of Bond on the spy thriller. Here, Cleo has been sent to
locate two black government agents who were posing as heroin buyers in
Hong Kong. They contact an Asian drug lord named Chen, who is trying to
take over the Hong Kong drug trade from Mr. Big, who turns out to be Ms.
Big, a white lesbian drug lord named the Dragon Lady. The Dragon Lady
busts up the drug deal and kills Chen who has betrayed her. She then
takes the two agents captive she can verify their credentials as actual
drug smugglers. She houses them in her casino where they are pampered in
luxury by her Asian sexual slaves, who also turn out to be her adopted
daughters. This fact doesn't prevent the Dragon Lady from incestuous
lesbian love scenes however. Cleo escapes from several traps set for her
by the Dragon lady and she eventually pays a visit to the Dragon Lady's
casino, where she rescues the two agents and kills the villain.
Tamara Dobson in Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.
In Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold the Bond influence is reflected
in several ways. The character of the Dragon Lady is also known as Mr. Big.
The male title calls to attention her lesbianism but it also resonates with the villain in both the novel and film of Live and Let Die. The title itself recalls two words often associated with Bond. Gold is used throughout Bond as a
recurring factor (Goldfinger, The Man with the Golden Gun, Goldeneye.)
Oddly, gold plays no part in The Casino of Gold's narrative. Of course
casinos appear with regularity in most Bond films (including the first
Bond novel, Casino Royale). In Bond, the gambling table serves to
demonstrate 007's superior wit, refinement and luck. In The Casino of
Gold similar elements can be attributed to Cleo, however an intertext
with other blaxploitation films complicates matters. Gambling is used
throughout black films as part of "the life."
When Cleo sits down at the gambling table, she not only recalls Bond,
but also the craps games so prevalent in other blaxploitation films.
This serves not only to align Cleo with Bond, but also keeps her firmly
rooted in the tradition of blaxploitation characterizations. By being
aligned with Bond she is also in alignment with his whiteness. The
intertextual element of gambling, along with misconceptions of black
animality and Cleo's firm rooting in blaxploitation characterizations,
keeps her aligned with blackness, and specifically blackness as seen in
Tamara Dobson in Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.
The importance of Cleo being separated from Bond lies in the area of
co-optation itself. Cleo is not simply a black James Bond. While the
Cleopatra Jones films have co-opted Bond, they avoid a total fusion of
her character with that of Bond. As will become evident after the
discussion of Live and Let Die, the co-optation in the Cleo films is not
just a simple borrowing of tropes, it is also a critique of Bond
ideology. Of the Bond films of the 1960s, Tony Bennett and Janet
Woollacott have posited: drawing together and working upon a series of
ideological tensions in relation to the nation, gender and the Cold War,
they operated both to shift and stabilize subject identities at a time
when existing ideological constructions had been placed in doubt and
jeopardy, when, if you like, the articulating principles of hegemony
were in disarray and alternatives had not been successfully established.
To this list of nation, gender and the Cold War, race can easily be
added. It was "existing ideological constructions" of race that
blaxploitation was putting into "doubt and jeopardy" in the 1960s and
1970s. Both the Bonds of the 1960s and can be seen as
efforts to stabilize white hegemony in the face of global nationalist
tensions and rising black militancy.
Bennett and Woollacott also state that, "[T]he geographical and racial
distribution of villainy is also such that the villain is always a member of a
non-Anglo-Saxon race" (72). It is this very fact that the Cleo films critique. By
reversing villainy to include whiteness, Cleo's appropriation of Bond
draws direct intertextual links with Bond and therefore directs
criticism of their racist elements directly back to Bond. The intertext
forms a sort of bridge between the films where responses and critiques
can pass. This is why it is important for Cleo to maintain her footing
in representations of blackness (albeit negative ones repeated
throughout blaxploitation). She has to bring a critique of Bond to the
attention of the spectator, while at the same time distancing herself
from him so as not to implicate herself in his whiteness and class.