Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A big success in 1974, Claudine resisted the tide of Blaxploitation movies by
presenting black problems as they existed, without becoming an urban fantasy. Beautiful
Diahann Carroll had costarred with Poitier a decade before and was noted as the first black performer
to have her own weekly sitcom. Here she teams with ever-reliable James Earl Jones in a
story of welfare life that raised eyebrows and opened minds.
Welfare mother Claudine (Diahann Carroll) has to hide the fact that she works as
a maid from her social worker, to keep her paltry benefit checks coming. Harried and distracted,
she doesn't think romance is for her, until a sociable garbageman named Roop (James Earl Jones)
takes her out on a date, with her entire family of kids objecting. The trouble is, even as Roop
and Claudine grow fond of each other, the welfare system conspires to stop them from getting
By its description, Claudine comes dangerously close to sounding like a black version of
Yours, Mine and Ours, a family comedy where real problems are pushed aside to concentrate on
petty squabbles and romantic differences. Claudine and Roop have no romantic problems; they're an
solid item from their first date. Although we're spared the worst the ghetto can dish out, their lives
and anxieties actually bear some relation to the real world. There had been a place for fantastic
films like For Love of Ivy, where a housemaid is wooed by a dreamboat black gambler who
looks like Sidney Poitier and has the world by the tail. But in 1974, black audiences and curious
whites were ready for something with more bite.
Claudine maintains a fairly light touch and a decidedly sitcom feel, as Carrol and her brood
of kids all take different busses to school and work. The oldest boy is becoming an activist, and
the oldest girl is taking a familiar and dangerous route by sleeping with her boyfriend. Claudine
copes with these problems like a real person, not a movie star: she screams, begs, cries and hits.
She only has so much control over her children - although the movie doesn't take her to task for
being AWOL bedding Roop every night of the week - as evidenced by her inability to keep the kids
from swearing at the table. Even though they're frank in their talk about sex, the film stresses
nice kids, that the family is a functioning unit. Claudine doesn't say love conquers
all, but it does indicate that as a sole weapon, it has a lot of power.
Screenwriters Lester and Tina Pine had previously made a perceptive and heartwarming film about
the problems of New York's Puerto Ricans called Popi, 1
and they do a good job of showing the Catch-22 of the welfare system that actually encourages black
men to desert their families and let the state support the kids. Roop finds that merely associating
with Claudine puts him under suspicion and feeds him into a system that seeks to garner his wages
and make him account for every dime he earns. He and Claudine are treated like zoo animals without
privacy. Every move they make to better themselves, unless they can make a clean break from
the system, is considered to be fraud.
Claudine is mature enough to acknowledge the fact that people, even teenagers, have sex,
and no amount of puritan disapproval is going to stop it. In poverty, families of all races end
up with a lot of children to raise with a shortage of resources and energy. Claudine has to deal
with her daughter's plight, being just a child, yet jumping on the treadmill of having children of
her own in poverty.
Zola would consider the story to be substantially sweetened. There are no drugs or crime involved,
that would immediately dissolve the family into death and despair. We see prostitutes, and about
the worst Roop has to deal with in the oldest boy is some backstreet gambling. But the film isn't
about hopelessness. It has a positive air about it, and it remains a solid film about the kind
of family life real people lead.
The picture is one of those 70s films that has some nudity, yet is rated PG. Curiously, its director
is John Berry, one of the more notable blacklisted directors. He directed John Garfield's last
movie before they both found themselves unemployable in 1951. After a few years in France, he
returned to the states to work his way back up in television.
Fox Home Video's DVD of Claudine is a decent transfer but has unaccountably been presented
flat. What's the
matter, Fox, aren't black people entitled to 16:9 enhancement? The image crops off nicely on
a widescreen set. There's a trailer, but the bonus of note is a commentary track with James Earl
Jones, Diahann Carroll, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, George Tillman Jr. and Dan Pine.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary track
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 20, 2003
1. Which I believe is out from MGM and is highly recommended.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson