'Claudine' Is a Sweetly Embroidered Drama of Class Struggle

Claudine, marketed as an urban drama but really just a love story like any other, was released among the slew of blaxploitation films that surged during the 1970s and, as such, was distinguished from those films as an emotional and sincere evaluation of Black family life. It features alternately tender and passionate performances from a cast who play their roles with as much ease as they do intensity. On display, in particular, is a key performance from star Diahann Carroll, who would later make a household name for herself with a three-year stint on the television series, Dynasty (1981-89).

Claudine is notable for its compassionate depiction of Black communities living in the quagmires of American economic and racial inequities during the ’70s. What gives the film its power is that it is unsentimental in its designs of explaining hardship in the face of systemic racism. Working from Lester and Tina Pine’s script, director John Berry manages a fine intermediate between comedy and drama, never allow a gross overstepping of the two genres to mar the message of the film or the performances.

Claudine (played by Carroll) is a single mother with six children who works a job on the sly so that she can continue to collect the welfare that she desperately needs to put food on the table and pay the rent. She meets a garbage collector named Rupert (played by an unusually not-so-intimidating James Earl Jones) one day while she is working as a housekeeper for an upscale family. Intrigued by the handsome man’s garrulous charm, Claudine accepts his invitation for a dinner date.

Rupert meets Claudine at her home and is suddenly inundated with the household furors of single-parent life; her children are boisterous and uncooperative and do not, initially, take a liking to Rupert. Rupert manages to sway Claudine into spending the night at his apartment and, later, as their romance begins to develop into a promising relationship, the question of marriage begins to loom. Rupert, however, has some personal baggage he has inadvertently brought into the romance, and just when the two have hit their stride, his past catches up with him.

A sweetly embroidered drama stitched with the care-worn threads of a tried-and-true love story, Claudine benefits from its distilled narrative of pure performance. There is little action here and the story is unharmed for it; Carroll and Jones are afforded compelling dialogue to test their mettle and they throw themselves into their work without worry or constraint.

It helps that the two leading characters have been drawn sensitively and judiciously. Carroll’s restrained, perspicacious and maternally-anchored performance deservedly earned her an Oscar nomination. Her weary gaze holds a thousand truths about a woman on the precipice of a life-altering decision. Jones’ starry-eyed, love-smitten Rupert earns equal footing with his starring opposite; a father-figure hovering over the homestead like a circling hawk, he eyes the family with paternal concern, and his yielding empathy adds yet another nuanced layer to the dramatic proceedings.

The six children are mercifully each given distinct personalities and are, as a result, real and unadorned before the camera, offering remarkable turns before their more experienced elders. As a whole, the ensemble cast performs an elegant swim through the narrative’s contraption of hardship and romance, dipping and curving expertly around its many twists and turns.

The story is buried in the heart of Harlem, New York, and much of its tensions, the push-and-pull of human communions and dissensions, is sourced from this neighborhood. Most of the narrative oscillates between Claudine and Rupert’s apartments, and these scenes proffer delicate shadings of sensual engagement, glimpses of life’s simple and frivolous pleasures: take-out meals, bubble-baths, and alternately idle and meaningful conversations, all taking place in the cramped corners of their limited spaces. These moments gather a curious warmth of lives lived in flux, people approaching middle-age in the hustle and bustle of an over-engaged city.

Amidst these moments are a few light comic runarounds that broach the serious drama; an overly invasive social worker turns up at Claudine’s home, pen and pad ready at the hand for a deductive tallying. It’s a welcome narrative gradation that adds some humor to the film’s matter-of-fact realism.

Criterion’s Blu-ray release offers a striking transfer that is clean and clear of print debris. Colors are beautifully saturated, never bleeding out, and always contained within the lines of the sharp print. The palette offers a delectable color-scheme of muted maroons, deep burgundies, pastel pinks, and oakwood browns. Dialogue and audio are presented clearly here and the film is soundtracked by the soulful contributions of Curtis Mayfield and Gladys Knight & the Pips. Extras include a 2003 audio commentary with stars Carroll and Jones, a discussion with filmmaker Robert Townsend, as well as an essay booklet by Danielle A. Jackson. Optional English subtitles are available.

Claudine is a valuable document of ’70s-era Harlem lives that pays admirable respect to the neighborhood’s grim realities. It’s a compelling watch and it boasts performances that leave impressions upon the heart long after the film is over. Most of all, it serves as a brilliant showcase that was never bettered by another vehicle for the late Carroll, who creates in Claudine a woman as real as the one we have seen and met in any and every neighborhood we’ve walked.