Tamara Dobson cut an imposing figure in films

Critical Eye

October 08, 2006|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

It was revolutionary, 30 years ago, to see a black woman not only lay waste to hoodlums in a movie but boss around every cop she came across.

And yet, Tamara Dobson, the striking, statuesque Baltimore-born actress who died last week at 61, did just that as Cleopatra Jones, a groundbreaking female action hero and a leading figure in the "blaxploitation" cinema of the 1970s.

In the first of two movies built around the character, titled simply Cleopatra Jones (1973), the imposing Dobson is a take-no-prisoners federal narcotics agent, a black Joan of Arc who mercilessly kicks drug-traffickers around while looking fabulous in a towering Afro, skintight duds and a black Corvette. The movie pulled in about $180 million domestically, made her a sudden sensation and earned her a vigorous cult following.

But Dobson's character, Jones, was written as almost a caricature of a tough female hero, a suave, virtually emotionless woman who shoots it out with hoodlums or kicks them in the teeth before going off to the next costume change - of which there were many. The menace is superficial and the dialogue wooden.

"I'm coming back," she tells a low-level drug pusher, with a sneer. "And when I do, your head and your body are going to need separate maintenance."

But Dobson overcame the material, successfully conveying a combination of power and style, and women - especially African-American women - loved her for it.

"Without being overly sexualized, Tamara Dobson's portrayal of Cleopatra Jones was an icon that many African-American women could relate to - and still do," said Nyame Smith, a filmmaker, writer and blogger in Los Angeles. "The period was the first time we'd seen black male - and female - action heroes. And for today's African-American actresses, empowering roles like Cleopatra Jones are not being offered by Hollywood studios. They often land supporting roles - or none at all."

Dobson was inevitably compared, and not always favorably, with Pam Grier, whose movies at the time - Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) - have aged better.

"I hate to sound shallow, but Dobson really got by on her looks," said Mike White, the editor of Cashiers du Cinemart, an irreverent movie magazine whose title parodies the French periodical Cahiers du Cinema. "She looked terrific."

She was, indeed, stunning. After she earned a degree in fashion illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Dobson's hourglass figure and Amazonian presence - she was 6 feet, 2 inches - got her picked for modeling and film work. A gun-wielding Dobson in full Jones mode adorned popular posters of the '70s.

Thomas Cripps, professor emeritus of history at Morgan State University and author of Slow Fade to Black, an account of African-Americans in cinema, recalls her in an impressionistic fashion. He had gone to a double feature and saw half of Cleopatra Jones before having to leave to attend to domestic duties.

"I saw only a fragment of her, but what I do remember is that she was tall and elegant," Cripps said. "She'd been a model, but when she went into the movie business, she was in the wrong business. In Hollywood, she was taller than all the male leads. In the movies, she couldn't be the good woman because she towered over everyone. She was doomed to be the heavy."

The Cleopatra Jones films were typical of the "blaxploitation" genre, movies with low-brow aspirations and an almost defiant dearth of morally uplifting themes. The majority were notable for gun-toting urban protagonists, a black-pride ethos and a glorification of the drug culture.

After the Cleopatra Jones hype died down, Dobson's career "dragged on" with increasingly bad roles, said Cripps. Her type was decidedly out of vogue by the time she made her last feature film, Chained Heat (1983). Set in a dismal prison populated by 2,000 desperate women, Chained Heat was pitched to audiences with the line, "Stripped of all they had, except the will to survive."

Dobson became "discouraged" by Hollywood when her career stumbled, said her brother, Peter Dobson, who described her as "always a headstrong person."

She made her way to New York, where she invested in real estate and became a landlord, he said. Dobson eventually returned to Baltimore about six years ago. Though she had moved on from Hollywood, the industry hadn't forgotten her: Her work was knowingly referenced in the popular culture, as when Beyonce Knowles played Foxxy Cleopatra in Austin Powers in Goldmember.

Dobson was part of a black revolution in film when she made Cleopatra Jones, although she was long ago eclipsed by a later generation that includes Spike Lee, Halle Berry, Will Smith and Denzel Washington. As Peter Dobson remembered, his sister's fee from the original movie "was not anywhere near what black American stars today are making."

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

A memorial service for Tamara Dobson will be held at noon Friday at Union Baptist Church, 1219 Druid Hill Ave.

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