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Claudine - The Criterion Collection
In August, with Black Lives Matter protests against police violence prompting discussions of racial justice and representation across the country, the New York Times published an article about The Criterion Collection. In conversation with the company's president, Peter Becker, they questioned why, with a modern library of over a thousand titles, Criterion had only inducted nine films by Black directors, as well as passing on offers to pick up films like Daughters of the Dust, which remained unavailable on disc for over 10 years afterward. Claudine, the story of a Black single mother trying to balance the needs of her family with her desire for a relationship, was probably already licensed and in the works when the article ran, not to mention it isn't by a Black director, but the film (which does not seem to come up often in discussion of great sociopolitical films) is still a valuable selection in terms of Criterion using their industry power to highlight a diverse range of stories, and bring attention to movies that have otherwise disappeared from the cultural consciousness.
Between the prying eyes of the welfare office and six children that rarely get along or cooperate with her, Claudine (Diahann Carroll) spends most of her days exhausted, with little time to tend to her own needs. When a gregarious garbageman nicknamed Roop (James Earl Jones) asks her out on a date, she almost turns him down, but his easygoing nature and wicked sense of humor win her over, and she finds herself spending the night as his place nearly every day of the week. There's an obvious connection between the two of them, but both of them are reluctant to commit: Claudine has been burned by bad relationships before and knows that taking on a partner will affect her welfare checks, and Roop is uneasy about the prospect of not one but seven people suddenly becoming dependent on him.
In 1951, director John Berry was accused of being a Communist by filmmaker Edward Dmytryk and blacklisted from Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Commission. Claudine, made in 1974, was the first feature film he made when he was able to return to Hollywood. As with so many politically conscious films from pretty much every era, Claudine feels as much like a comment on 2020 as 1974. Claudine and Roop struggle against a welfare system that seems as if it was designed to keep them exactly where they are: struggling and forced to beg the government for help that it withholds for arcane and contradictory reasons, at the expense of their freedom and happiness. Claudine's oldest son, Charles (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) is a budding revolutionary who dislikes her willingness to put on a good face for the powers-that-be (even if she knowingly bends the rules), and is also suspicious of Roop's ability to commit. When Claudine and Roop find him at a meeting for his protest group (at the W.E.B. DuBois community center!), he gives a brief speech that still rings depressingly true: "Existing -- that's humiliation. [...] I just want things to change. I want to be able to feel like a real human being. I want to be able to just breathe."
The screenplay, written by Tina and Lester Pine, weaves these bits of commentary in around a rich portrait of Claudine's family life. Both Carroll (whose performance earned an Academy Award nomination) Jones have such a range of notes to play here. Their relationship is not just romantic, but refreshingly honest in its sexuality (the very first scene in the movie has Claudine's friends on the bus teasing her about needing to get laid; in the scene after, there's a wonderful sexual tension as a sweaty Jones shows off, grinning like the Cheshire Cat as he lifts the garbage can above his head to drop it in the truck). Their relationship has real friction as she tests him to see what kind of pressures he might crumple under, and he tries to prove his reliability without dropping his guard. Berry captures it all with an effortless intimacy that keeps the film focused on these characters and their struggles without losing sight of the world they inhabit as a crucial backdrop. The film is also blessed with a vibrant soundtrack, written by Curtis Mayfield and performed by Gladys Knight and the Pips. In one beautiful, bittersweet scene, two of Claudine's sons bike across town as her music plays.
If there's an element that puts Claudine's reckoning with social justice over the top, it's that the Pines reject easy answers. Many of the conflicts in the movie can't be fully resolved, and the film allows those perpetual struggles to be the point rather than trying to settle. Claudine's daughter Charlene (Tamu Blackwell) is dipping her own toes into dating, and she resents her mother's overprotectiveness and desire to use her as a babysitter. Claudine, of course, can't see past the possibility that Charlene will have to face the same struggles that she has. Their battle comes to a head in a painful scene where Claudine hits Charlene, and while our understanding of Claudine's motivations does not absolve the abuse, there is a clarity in the script as to why the characters behave the way they do. This is even more true of Roop, whose world is turned upside down at the most heart-wrenching possible moment. On paper, his reaction is unsympathetic, falling into a trap that he himself lays out on his first date with Claudine, but the Pines find a depth to this as well in one of the final scenes, in which Jones is magnificent. The film builds to a final scene that some might view as satirical, thanks to notes of fantasy, and yet there is a genuine optimism in it that reflects the film's overall belief that in a world that is stacked against them, finding hope in each other is its own rebellion.
Criterion brings Claudine to Blu-ray with nice artwork by Alphaville Design (I could not find an actual illustrator's name in the booklet), featuring a painted illustration of the cast on the front, the reverse of the sleeve, and throughout the included fold-out booklet, which also includes an essay by Danielle A. Jackson. The one-disc release comes in Criterion's standard Scanavo Blu-ray casing, and features a generic "Special Edition" Criterion sticker on the front of the plastic wrap.
The Video and Audio
According to the liner notes, Claudine is offered via a new 1.85:1 1080p AVC 4K remaster created by 20th Century Studios. Some of the 4K masters produced in-house over the years have skewed a little in the color department, but Claudine might be one of their most gorgeous efforts. Colors are rich and perfectly saturated, and the picture is pristine, with a lovely, fine-grain organic appearance that makes the movie look like it was brand new. Sound is an impressively vibrant LPCM Mono track that captures the dialogue, ambience, and of course, knockout soundtrack by composer Curtis Mayfield and Gladys Knight and the Pips with pitch-perfect accuracy. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also provided. Across the board, a flawless presentation.
Criterion has created two new programs for this edition of Claudine. The first is a conversation between film programmer Ashley Clark and filmmaker Robert Townsend (30:50). As this was recorded during the pandemic, the conversation consists of the two men conversing over video chat, and the quality is understandably limited, although film clips and archival images are presented in full HD. It's a fascinating and lively chat, with both participants bringing interesting and enjoyable perspectives on the film to the table (I especially like Clark's interpretation of the ending, which I then had to work hard to avoid ripping off in the review above). The second is a piece with critic Imogen Sara Smith on director John Barry (19:54), shedding light on his career, especially in the wake of his HUAC blacklisting, which resulted in a portion of work done under pseudonyms, which makes his career slightly harder to follow. It's a fascinating piece, illustrating how Berry often existed right alongside some of the most important figures in Hollywood history, such as Orson Welles (whom Berry described as his "spiritual father") and Billy Wilder (assisting him on the set of Double Indemnity), and describing his struggle to find work after being blacklisted and fleeing to Paris.
On the archival side, there are two extras, one new-to-disc and one ported. The new-to-disc supplement is a series of illustrated audio excerpts a 1974 AFI Harold Lloyd Master Seminar featuring Diahann Carroll (21:57). This is a wonderful chat, which seems to have been nicely edited, with great thoughts from Caroll not just on Claudine and what was important to her when making the movie (she has wonderful stories about Barry standing up for the cast and his approach to the movie), and also in terms of her career as a whole (a story about Klute is an especially pointed observation). Supplementing this is an audio commentary recorded for the 2003 DVD, featuring Carroll, James Earl Jones, and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, filmmaker George Tillman, Jr., with "hosting" and additional comments by Dan Pine, the son of screenwriters Lester and Tina Pine. This is both a very valuable extra in that it's the only place on the disc one gets to hear from Jones or Hilton-Jacobs, and because Carroll is no longer with us, but it's also a bit frustrating, as there are notable gaps in the track, with a couple of instances where a few minutes pass without comment. Jones' comments on the film are perhaps the most interesting, in that he felt the film was politically subtle and has critiques of his own performance that I imagine many viewers would not necessarily agree with, but the insights that are here are all worth hearing (although Carroll's comments on the movie are a bit more substantial in the AFI piece than the commentary). Still, perhaps the main shame is that no kind of archival interview with director John Berry is included, even in text form.
Also slightly frustrating: while part of it appears in the AFI seminar piece (in standard definition), the original theatrical trailer for Claudine is not included separately. There were even two on the DVD (one in English and one in Spanish).
At one point in Claudine, Charles asks his mother, "How can frightened people change anything?" "There ain't no other kind of people," she tells him. In a way, it would be nice if films from decades ago didn't reflect the present day, because of course they can only do that if we continue to make the same mistakes. In any case, Claudine is a real gem, worthy of wide rediscovery, now presented in an outstanding Criterion package. It's a shame that the extras package isn't a bit more robust, but with so many of the key players having passed on, that shortcoming won't stop this from being worthy of the DVDTalk Collector's Series.
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