A heart and soul comedy. Can you dig it?
Claudine is a single mother desperate to make ends meet in the complex urban nightmare that is life in the ghetto. Her days find her juggling the needs of her children with surprise visits from social workers and long bus rides to the suburbs where she works as a maid. But Claudine wants a better life for herself and her family and she sees salvation in the guise of Rupert Morgan, a hard working garbage man who route passes through the affluent neighborhood. They begin a tentative relationship that is, at first, all about passion and fulfilling personal needs. But as kids (both hers and his—unseen—from previous relationships) take center stage, the specter of responsibility looms over them and threatens their happiness. Claudine knows that Rupert's presence places her welfare benefits, and therefore her babies, in jeopardy. And Rupert has never risen to the challenge of being a father to anyone (he has no contact with his offspring). As fear and frustration take over, it seems nothing good will come of this union between a maid and a garbage man. But it's the power of love and commitment that keeps bringing them back together, even as the outside world conspires to keep them apart. For it is children that are most important to their mother. Family is everything to Claudine.
There are times when Claudine seems as timely as the hourly updates on CNN. There are other times when the film feels as dated as black power and a monumental afro. It can be very human and endearing. It can also be preachy and irritating. You can't deny its performances or its inherent power. But you may find yourself rolling your eyes at some of the old-fashioned attitudes and experiences that the characters must face. In essence, Claudine is that archetypical urban drama from the early '70s, a film caught between the new found empowerment (and painful grief of loss) created by the civil rights movement of the '60s with the tired, prejudiced mind set that still hung over America from the previous 400 years. It provides a refreshing glimpse into a world that many people have no experience with, but then never fails to underscore its message with enough obvious symbols and clichés to easily hammer its point home. At its best, it allows us to understand the pain, the pride and the poverty, which consistently invades the lives of all these characters. At its worst, it's like a humorless standup comic's miserable childhood routine. Held up today as a milestone of African American cinema, Claudine pales next to the praise. This is a pretty good movie, but it's also one that cannot adequately address, in detail, the issues it wants to confront. Claudine is a shorthand examination of the inner city black experience. It may be about surviving against bureaucratic and cultural odds, but it merely skims the surface of this dense, virtually impenetrable reality.
Part of the split personality of this film can be found in the choice of leads. In James Earl Jones, we have the perfect mid-'70s male, able to wear his newfound civil freedom on the same broad, bent shoulders that used to carry segregation and prejudice. The usually urbane voice of numerous commercials loses himself completely in the role of an edge of poverty sanitation worker who, for the first time, is finding the inner strength to live up to his responsibilities both as a man and a father. But all of Jones' grittiness is offset, and not necessarily in a good way, by the ladylike dignity of Diahann Carroll in the title role of Claudine. Ms. Carroll was, at this time, a pioneer in the media, having starred in the sitcom Julia in 1968, the first time an entire television show had been based around a black character. She even received an Oscar nomination for her work here. But it's hard to buy this delicate, high-cheeked vision of glamour as a down on her luck single mother of six. She looks too pampered, too graceful to successfully transform into a woman of welfare. No matter how hard she tries, she sounds awkward when she swears and looks regal when she is supposed to just be noble. Another bi-polar aspect of the film is in its scope. Claudine tries for a mix of universal struggle, ghetto realism, and human emotion, but it's shot in an incredibly TV movie, single setup medium shot composition style that ruins its epic intentions. We never get a sense of the world surrounding these characters. Aside from a wayward rat in Rupe's apartment or a distant bombed out building in Claudine's neighborhood, this could be anywhere, anyplace in metropolitan USA. For a movie that wants to move beyond the closed class confines of poor society to speak collectively, we are trapped in a very insular, self-contained motion picture world.
Yet there are some very wonderful things about the film. Little scenes like James Earl Jones preparing a bath for Claudine, complete with dishwashing liquid bubbles, or the conversation between Jones and Claudine's "invisible" son are sweet and engaging. Jones and Carroll both have an easy, natural rapport with all the children in the film. And the kids themselves aren't overly cute or typical cinematic smart asses. But as with everything else in the film, there are equally obnoxious flaws in the narrative. The entire welfare office argument/discussion borders on outrageous satire (it takes Jones' final speech to bring it back down to reality) and the interactions with the uptight white social worker, which play out like perverse slapstick, are forced and phony. Issues like teen pregnancy are handled with physical abuse and we never learn enough about the family unit in general to understand the dynamic between them. But it's the whole vasectomy/manhood/black power subplot involving the eldest son that finally derails the story. It just feels completely wrong, grabbed from another film and thrown in here to add a layer of unrealistic social and personal consciousness to what has been a very simple saga. Claudine didn't need this scripted sensibility to sell its sincerity or strength. It was doing a decent job by focusing on the characters and their own personal struggles. It can't successfully incorporate "big picture" issues. It's just too small a movie to handle it.
There are issues with Fox's release of Claudine on DVD and most of them surround the transfer and print offered. Claudine is presented in a full frame presentation that is decidedly open matted. This cannot be the original aspect ratio, as the title cards and credits seem to run off the sides. So instead of remastering the film to respect the director's artistic vision, we get a tube-filling image that suffers from occasional compression grain and age defects. But two other aspects of the disc really stand out. Claudine boasts an absolutely stunning R&B soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield, containing brilliant, soulful songs like "On and On" and "Make Yours a Happy Home," all essayed with grace and power by Gladys Knight and the Pips. Thanks to the Dolby Digital technology, the instrumentation is accentuated in all its musical brilliance and command. Along with a trailer that tries to sell Claudine as a riotous blaxploitation comedy, we get a commentary track featuring three of the stars from the movie, the filmmakers' son, and a current Hollywood producer/fan. It's a treat to hear Ms. Carroll and Mr. Jones discuss their work in the film and everyone else offers their own personal take on the movie and its impact. Unfortunately, it's a very sparse discussion with huge gaps between informative bits. Also, all the participants were obviously recorded separately from each other, which detracts from the presentation. It would have been nice to hear the actors discuss Claudine among themselves. Instead, we get individual recollections that, while entertaining, never really gel into a full narrative about the making of the film. Which in some ways is like the movie itself. Claudine fails to come together as the rich portrait of black inner city life it strives to be. While it offers fine performances and moments of emotional insight, it's too reliant on dated contrivances to become something truly timeless.
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