Cleopatra Jones on My Mind
Wednesday, August 1, 2007.
By Stephane Dunn
Two years ago, when I finished my book about the representation of women in 1970s black action films, I ended a chapter about model and actress Tamara Dobson with a footnote about her ‘disappearing’ from the pop culture limelight with the end of the blaxploitation film fad.
While I was in the midst of wondering where she was and lamenting my futile attempts to locate her, she was fighting the battle of her life. On October 2, 2006, at age 59, Dobson, who became the karate kicking Cleopatra Jones on the big screen, died from complications of pneumonia and multiple sclerosis. On screen, she was larger than life or reality.
When she appeared in 1973’s Cleopatra Jones, Dobson’s 6’2 inch agile frame, striking dark brown face, and ultra glam 70s wardrobe complete with animal print furs, turbans, wide brimmed hats, and silk pantsuits certainly made her a visually arresting super heroine and a Black Power and feminist era diva worthy of the big screen.
Yet, it was the way Dobson imbued super agent Cleopatra Jones with poise, class, and toughness that forever seals her as a cultural icon of the 70s’ ‘new woman’ as significant as television’s Charlie’s Angels and Policewoman.
At the time, black feminist organizer Magaret Sloan condemned the bevy of sexually and racially exploitive images of black women and women in general in the prevalent ‘superfly’ themed black action vehicles of the time. Cleopatra Jones, to paraphrase her, gave black women a fantasy film character they could watch with more pride than shame.
My own writing of a book about the film era came out of childhood remembrances of watching Pam Grier and Dobson on screen and seeing how much affection they invoked from the grown up women and men around me. Over the years, a bevy of films from Austin Powers to Set It Off clearly demonstrate the cultural nostalgia that continues to exist for ‘Foxy Brown’, ‘Cleoptra Jones’ and their super baad brothers.
My book pays homage too even as it critiques the politics of race and gender that define the historically narrow presence and absence of black women within the genre and popular film culture generally. It is a critical tribute to an era of black film imagery that was both radical and conservative and as time has proven, just as rare as it was exciting and problematic.
To reflect on the end of the super athletic Dobson’s struggle with multiple sclerosis dramatizes the impact of the disease and our need to be involved in the research and fight against it as much as the disease’s highly visible physical toll on the late Richard Pryor.
To reflect on Dobson’s ‘Cleopatra Jones’ legacy is significantly relevant during this time of ongoing criticism and debate about the proliferation of misogynistic and sexist representations in hip hop and rap music culture - a culture with striking parallels to ‘blaxploitation.’ Even in death, Dobson has been referred to as that 'Amazonian' beauty of Cleopatra Jones fame.
But Dobson’s passing should provoke a genuine moment of reflection, consideration, and respect too because the invisibility, the neglect, the too precursory glimpse of her role in black and American popular film history personified by the barely noticeable footnote of her passing is a metaphor for too many lost, big screen sisters. So shouts out for the most majestic kick butt diva of all time.
Stephane Dunn's new book, Baad ‘Bitches’ and Sassy Supermamas: Race, Gender & Sexuality in Black Power Action Fantasies is published by The University of Illinois Press.
With thanks to Mark Anthony Neal at New Black Man.
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