Cleopatra Jones, Cornel West, and Cleopatra Jones,
The DP and I spent a lovely evening at home eating farfalle and sauce Bolognese. We also watched Cleopatra Jones. It’s a 70’s period piece, but it’s an important period piece. Tamara Dobson plays Cleopatra Jones as a black James Bond with a conscience and fabulous clothes. Sure, the plot is nothing, the stereotypes of black and white characters alike are, ehm, broad, but the movie is fundamentally optimistic. Jones works for good – to see that people are free from the threat of crime, drug abuse, and intimidation – and does it with compassion, style and panache. Is it cheesy? Sure. But it completely lacks either the nihilism or the saccharine sanctimony that has come to dominate popular culture. And that was unbelievably refreshing to see.
A lot of people think of the 1970’s as a string of hopeless clichés and embarrassments. I disagree. People tried to make things better. A corrupt Presidency was removed from office by good journalism and the efforts of courageous and principled Legislators. As a nation, we continued to work towards greater equality of opportunity for all Americans, and attempted to balance our great military and diplomatic resources with a dose of conscience. And people were free to express themselves artistically, intellectually, and socially in a way consistent with being citizens in a liberal democracy. Hell, the “decadence” of, say, Studio 54 seems downright wholesome when compared to the behavior seen any night at clubs in any major city. And compare Chic to 50 Cent. No, really. Or Brittany. Or, if you want wholesome, maybe Shania Twain. See – nihilism or sanctimony. No wonder snarkiness is a preferred mode of discourse!
Watching the movie, the DP asked what seemed on the surface to be a trivial question: whatever happened to Afros? Now, as someone whose hair naturally approximated an Afro in the 1970s, I have been delighted to see the acceptance of progressively shorter and shorter hair. (I inherited from my father hair that was once described as “curly as fire”. I’ll leave you to ponder the image, and pray that no photos of my high school and college years are floating around on the internets.) But I know of at least one person who proudly maintains his Afro: Professor Cornel West.
I tremendously admire Professor West for his elegant prose, his impassioned teaching, and his intellectual project of work towards a synthesis of Marxist materialism and Christian teleology. I respect Brother West for his singular understanding of the economic, ethnic and racial issues that cleave America and many other nations. And finally, I am in awe of a man who can as easily stand on the corner of a street in Harlem, bring calm and understanding to a crowd, acknowledge me (hearing him call out “Brother Scott – what are you doing here?” was one of the proudest moments of my life, and made my job that day much, much easier) and look so fine in his black suit, French cuffed shirt, and the aforementioned Afro as he can show up President Bill Clinton by saying more in five minutes than WJC can in an hour. But apart from the Afro, what ties together Cleopatra Jones and Cornel West is the stand against nihilism. West’s constant goal is not to say “no”, but to say yes – yes to hope, yes to belief, yes to tell truth to power, yes to making the world a better place. And we need more, not less of this.
Now, finally, the other Cleopatra Jones: it’s a song Mark Eitzel wrote and recorded on Sixty Watt Silver Lining. While much of Eitzel’s music is within a hair’s breadth of Morrisey-mopey, Cleopatra Jones is a brilliant, chiming tribute to “a great couple of films and a woman I met in a bar” (his words, not mine). And it features a stunning, shimmering trumpet solo by Mark Isham in the bridge that moves a four minute pop song into something altogether different. Which brings us back to hope. Always a good thing to end on.