Sticking it to the man, with cheese

Tamala Dobson as Cleopatra Jones

Alamo Drafthouse puts the Blaxploitation in Black History Month

February, they say, is Black History Month (one-twelfth of the year is sufficient, the logic apparently goes). When it comes to celebrating such events, one would hardly expect the Alamo Drafthouse to dredge up some square old documentary about George Washington Carver or to run a 14-hour marathon showing of the brilliant PBS series Eyes on the Prize. (A series, by the way, that has been forced out of print on home video thanks to draconian copyright law; write your Congressperson about that one if you want to celebrate Black History Month and fight for sensible intellectual property policies at the same time.)

No, instead of straight-laced documentaries - or even a highly appropriate choice such as Spike Lee's Malcolm X, which just hit video stores in a spiffy special edition - the Alamo's grindhouse heritage steers it inexorably toward the disreputable alleys of Blaxploitation. The jury's still out for most folks in the debate over the '70s filmmaking movement's significance for black Americans: One man's popular culture bonanza of images featuring empowered black men - and women! - sticking it to The Man is another's degrading insistence that blacks can only achieve self-worth through violence, undiscriminating sexual promiscuity, and/or drug trafficking - all of which is geared, usually, to fill the pockets of white filmmakers who couldn't care less about the causes of black folk.

Wherever you stand on that debate, some truths about Blaxploitation are unavoidable: It afforded a few black filmmakers and actors opportunities they never would have had otherwise; it introduced some outrageous fashion and iconic characters to the pop cultural landscape, not to mention some immortal music; and almost all of the movies made during the movement's short lifespan stink, even if they're worth viewing as kitschy artifacts or ironic hootenanies.

   Cleopatra Jones

Dir. Jack Starrett; writ. Max Julien; feat. Tamara Dobson, Bernie Casey, Brenda Sykes, Antonio Fargas, Dan Frazer, Shelley Winters (PG)

Cleopatra Jones, which screened January 31 at the Alamo Drafthouse and is available on VHS and DVD, is no exception. It alternates between laughable and boring - a balance that is improved with a couple of beers, as Alamo bartenders can attest - and falls short of the iconic stature of Shaft or Foxy Brown (speaking of the latter: Please, Hollywood, think twice before going through with that planned Halle Berry remake! Check Catwoman's gross receipts and chicken out!).

Like so many of its peers, Cleopatra begins with an entertainingly crazy premise: The title character is some kind of über-cop, given worldwide jurisdiction and a kick-ass Corvette by someone in the government (the film doesn't specify) who wants her to stamp out the drug trade. The first we see of Ms. Jones, she's overseeing the bombing of a huge poppy field on the other side of the world.

But as with other Blaxploitationers that look great on paper, Cleopatra Jones is doomed by a combination of brain-dead screenwriting and amateur-level acting. The audience, starved for dramatic tension, quickly begins looking for stuff to laugh at. Fortunately the movie contains an outrageous pair of villains: Shelley Winters (a lesbian mob boss who changes wigs every scene and calls herself "Mommy") and Antonio Fargas, known here as "Doodlebug" and elsewhere as "Huggy Bear." Throw in a climactic battle in a scrapyard full of discarded automobiles, and you almost have something cheesy enough to enjoy.

By John DeFore

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