The Criterion Collection film group hit a home run with the recent Blu-ray release of the 1974 film classic “Claudine.” Starring legendary actors Diahann Carroll (“Dynasty,” “Carmen Jones,” “Eve’s Bayou”) and James Earl Jones (“Great White Hope,” “Star Wars,” “Coming to America”), the feature production became the template for Black romantic comedies by placing two would-be lovers against a headwind of opposition including past relationships, Claudine’s six children, and the welfare case workers. Most importantly, with this release, many of the unanswered questions the film’s fans have had for more than forty years, are answered in an amazing commentary offered in Criterion’s packaging.
Rupert Marshall works as a garbageman; Claudine Price as a part-time maid to illegally supplement the welfare assistance that she receives. They meet in passing on her way to work, they agree to a date, and he shows up to her home that evening where he encounters her six children (Charles, Charlene, Paul, Patrice, Francis and Lurlene). Claudine and Rupert make no promises to each other, there are few romantic overtures, and when it premiered — audiences appreciated seeing a couple create a space for themselves against the odds.
One Chicago Defender reviewer wrote at the film’s premiere: “Unlike the majority of films that deal with some sudden tragedy or existential influence that comes into a happy home and threatens to tear a loving, affluent family apart, “Claudine” deals with real-life, kick-you-in-the-butt problems — paying the bills, putting food on the table, and the sheer difficulty of surviving in a tough and often unfair inner-city world.”
In many ways, “Claudine” pushed the underlying issues facing Black romantic relationships to the forefront: finances, the impact of exes on current expectations, children, and divergent relationship desires. Forty-six years after its release, what makes the film so prophetic is its stream of consciousness found in revolutionary dialogue and tongue-in-cheek challenges to stereotype. Like Rupert asking Claudine how she ended up with six kids and her responding, “Haven’t you heard about us ignorant Black b—-, just laying up grinding out babies for the taxpayers to take care of?”
Viewers will be taken aback by the social worker showing up unannounced to snoop about the Price home and interrogate Claudine about rumors of a man visiting the household. They will find comedy, but also note the sense of humiliation Claudine and her children shoulder having to hide gifts given to them by Rupert — many taken from the garbage he collects — from the social worker for risk of being financially penalized.
Similarly, audiences gain an awareness of aid policies that dictated the behaviors and associations of women with dependent children and forced men out of the household as a condition of family support.
Marching in lockstep with the amazing scriptwriting and performances by the actors is the soundtrack, written by Curtis Mayfield and branded into listeners’ souls by the iconic Gladys Knight. In fact, it is Knight’s soul-stirring cry from a darkened screen, “How can I work out this sweet relation … let us deal with love?” that opens the film. The soundtrack offers the perfect accompaniment to the emotional roller-coaster “Claudine” creates and is as powerful today as it was in theaters.
Claudine is not just a story about love in the inner city, but also how romantic relationships become necessarily tied to the consumer republic — or the ability to use money to bolster affections. As such, the film also demonstrates how the lack of money can negate the manhood, womanhood, and personhood of those unable to afford playing the game of love.
Claudine’s relationship with Rupert, in many ways, is an antecedent to larger issues of love. They are expressed most fluidly, not through the lovers, but between Claudine and her children — particularly the two eldest, Charles and Charlene, and then between Rupert and Claudine’s children. A treat includes glimpsing actor Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (“Welcome Back Kotter,” “The Jacksons: An American Dream”) as Claudine’s young street soldier Charles. Hilton-Jacobs is a surreal as the sharp, but socially dispossessed eldest child.
One great disappointment for this editor is that a sequel to “Claudine” did not materialize before the death of Diahann Carroll.
This is a visually clean production that has a restored appearance and sound. The new release features an invaluable audio commentary recorded in 2003 with Carroll, Jones, Hilton-Jacobs, filmmaker George Tillman Jr., and Dan Pine, the son of screenwriters Lester and Tina Pine. Supplemental features to the film include a May 1974 recording of Carroll at the American Film Institute’s Harold Lloyd Master Seminar series, where she discusses the making of “Claudine.” For the uninitiated, this film is the perfect introduction to family-oriented, well-crafted dramas. For fans of the film, this release is worth the purchase for the features and memories alone.
The Criterion Blu-ray release of Claudine is available through video retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, and direct from Criterion at www.criterion.com.