Tamara Dobson As Cleopatra Jones: Blaxploitation's Forgotten Icon
For model and actress Tamara Dobson, Cleopatra Jones was a career-defining role, establishing her as one of the leading stars of Blaxploitation cinema. Dobson was considered the second-most successful Blaxploitation actress, behind Pam Grier, whose filmography includes Foxy Brown and Coffy. Even though her output never matched Grier's, she was an icon of the era, a strikingly beautiful giantess of a woman with the biggest afro on the big screen. Sadly, Dobson contracted multiple sclerosis, and died in 2006 at the age of 59.
Hitting The Ground Running
Tamara Dobson stood head and shoulders above all other actresses in the groovy era. That’s a guarantee since one of the earliest and most successful blaxploitation actresses once held the Guinness World Record for “Tallest Leading Lady in Film.” Born and raised in Baltimore, Dobson started her hustle early working as a beautician. Eventually, her 6’2” frame caught the eye of a Baltimore department store executive, who put her famous-to-be frame in the public eye.
Unfortunately, the ‘60 and ‘70s were a difficult time for black actors, but Dobson made it big despite the odds. Her leggy and striking figure helped her find a footing in modeling after graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a degree in illustration.
Early Success As A Model
Tamara Dobson put that illustration degree to work even before she graduated. According to a 1969 Sun magazine article titled "Tomboy to $60 an Hour Model," she worked and modeled through a work-study program in New York City. Supposedly, she also took acting classes on the advice of her friend, Sidney Poitier. Those long ebony legs and her distinctly voluminous afro separated her from the pack. She quickly found fortune modeling for Vogue and Essence magazine. She also worked in TV, filming commercials for Revlon, Faberge, and Chanel.
Her Big Break
Dobson’s introduction to America at large came in the 1973 action comedy, Cleopatra Jones. Dobson played the undercover secret agent “Cleo” Jones, who poses as a model to thwart crime. The female “Shaft,” debuted to positive reviews and strong box office numbers. Los Angeles Film Critic Kevin Thomas summed it up thusly, “An exceptionally well-made black action picture. In her first starring role Miss Dobson more than makes up for her lack of acting experience by her dazzling looks, sultry personality, and unwavering poise.”
The success of the first Cleopatra Jones led to a sequel, Cleopatra Jones And The Casino of Gold in 1975. Dobson reprised her role as “Cleo” but unfortunately, the film did not achieve the same level of success as the first. The lack of popularity was likely due to poor reviews and the decline in blaxploitation films.
'I Loved Cleo'
Naturally, some people criticized blaxploitation as an underhanded industry. Nevertheless, Dobson defended her character, “You go through phases until you find the right situation where a character works for you. A lot of t*ts and ass movies were made, ballbuster films, exploitation pictures. But I don’t care what anybody calls it. Doing Cleopatra Jones gave me a chance to work. I loved Cleo. She was not only gracious but strong, clever, intelligent and sexy.”
Was There A Tamara Dobson Vs. Pam Grier Feud?
Pam Grier will always be considered the queen of Blaxploitation cinema, and perhaps (as Quentin Tarantino described her) the first female action hero. Grier has the edge over Dobson because she played multiple memorable roles, and her films may have aged better. But in the early '70s, Grier and Dobson were the two leading ladies of the genre. They were said to be fierce rivals, but Grier has tried to set the record straight in her memoir Foxy: My Life In Three Acts, describing a friendship that started when the two were roommates at the start of their careers:
[Tamara Dobson] became my best friend. ... I still remember the day she arrived from New York, a six-foot-two stunningly beautiful dark-skinned supermodel with six pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage. She breezed in wearing a long fur coat -- she was ultra-sophisticated, and she really knew who she was. ... Destined to become my big sister and teach me the tricks of the modeling and beauty trades, she was excited to hear about my experiences with farming, horses, skiing and ice-skating in the 'hood back in Denver.
Dobson taught Grier to apply makeup and walk like a model, and Grier taught Dobson how to ride a motorcycle and shoot a gun. She went on to write,
The press continually tried to create competiton between the two of us, since she was the sophisticated one and I was more 'grassroots.' But she and I both hated the controversy the press cooked up. ... The press was determined to divide and conquer, but Tamara and I would have none of it.
In fact, Grier says, she and Dobson dreamed of being an a buddy action movie -- two black ladies kicking ass side-by-side would be unprecedented in Hollywood. And despite their mutual success, she couldn't get a studio to bite on the idea.
Later in Life
Thankfully, the lack of success for Cleopatra Jones And The Casino Of Gold didn’t stop Dobson. She worked in TV for nearly 20 more years, mostly starring in made-for-TV movies. She made appearances on Buck Rogers and Sanford and Son in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Her style differentiated her and opened the door for new types of people. When she passed in 2006, her brother described her contribution to fashion:
She was not afraid to start a trend. She designed a lot of the clothing that so many women emulated. She helped develop elegant fashions, especially for tall women.