Hollywood Flashback: In 1973, 'Cleopatra Jones' Ruled the Box Office

Cleopatra Jones Still - Photofest - P 2018
Courtesy of Photofest

Over four decades before Taraji P. Henson's turn as a hitwoman in 'Proud Mary,' Tamara Dobson starred in a 1973 crime film that helped popularize the blaxploitation genre.

The Jan. 12 release of Screen Gems' Proud Mary, starring Taraji P. Henson as a Mafia hitwoman, pays more than a little homage to "blaxploitation" films of the past. The genre — which featured mostly African-American characters, extreme violence and irresistible R&B soundtracks — went mainstream with 1971's Shaft.

Max Julien, one of blaxploitation's biggest stars (he appeared opposite Richard Pryor in 1973's The Mack), was laying low in Rome in the early '70s when a voice in his head told him to "go home and write about something called 'Cleopatra Jones.' " Two days later, he was in Hollywood selling the idea to producer Peter Guber. "Everyone was looking for a black film at the time," recalls Julien of his pitch, which centered on a female James Bond-type character. Guber didn't stick with the project, but Warner Bros. committed to making it, with Julien as co-writer and co-producer.

A nationwide search led them to 6-foot-2 model Tamara Dobson, then 25, as the Stingray-driving hero who battles Shelley Winters' villainous drug kingpin, "Mommy." (Winters "screams her head off and has a different wig and girlfriend in each scene," noted THR's review.) The $1.5 million film opened July 18, 1973, at No. 23; five weeks later, it was the No. 2 film in the U.S. and went on to gross $8 million domestically ($43 million today). A remake is in the works from Warner Bros. 

This story first appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.