Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Urban Love Story

Film: Claudine
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’m not really sure how to classify Claudine. Is this a Blaxploitation film? It kind of feels like it in one sense, except that only the fact that it deals with a virtually all-black cast and discusses social problems traditionally considered to be relevant to the urban black population. None of the other Blaxploitation hallmarks are here. Is it a social conscience movie? It deals pretty strongly with not just the welfare system but with the serious issues involved in getting off welfare. It deals with absentee fathers, teen pregnancy, and dealing with poverty. But it’s also a romance. I’m not really sure what Claudine is. However, Claudine seems to be pretty sure of what it wants to be; it’s not suffering from the multiple personality disorder of many films that attempt to cross or blend genres.

Claudine Price (Diahann Carroll) is a single mother living in Harlem with her six children from two failed marriages and two “almost marriages.” She is getting government assistance to make ends meet, and frequently hides a number of things around her house when someone shows up to check on her. She also hides her job, since being employed would reduce her benefits. As the film starts, she begins a relationship with Rupert “Roop” Marshall (James Earl Jones), a garbage collector. Her children are opposed to the relationship mainly because they figure that he’ll eventually leave her like all of the other men in her life have left her.

In many ways, Claudine is an exposé on the welfare system. Claudine is forced to hide her relationship with Roop because any gift he gives her will be deducted from the benefits that she receives. Just as she hides her nice rug and upgraded coffee maker, Claudine is forced to stick Roop in the bathroom whenever Miss Kabak (Elisa Loti) shows up. She raises a good point—no one cares if a gentleman caller gives Miss Kabak a bottle of wine, but if Claudine receives a gift, she’s no better off. Eventually, when Claudine and Roop go to the welfare office to find out the implications if they get married, they discover essentially the same thing. If he tries to help her out, she loses benefits in the amount of his assistance, so there’s no benefit at all for him trying to help her out of the system.

The film also plays with the idea of the African-American family. Claudine’s six children evidently come from four different relationships. Near the conclusion of the film, Claudine discovers that her eldest daughter Charlene (Tamu Blackwell) is pregnant, essentially repeating the cycle that Claudine has fallen into. Roop has kids from a few failed marriages as well. As the film enters the third act, we discover that he’s getting his wages garnished for underpayment of child support, which makes the idea of marrying Claudine something almost out of reach.

The third social issue under investigation here is the plight of the African-American youth. Claudine’s oldest child is Charles (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who looks exactly like he did as Freddy Washington in Welcome Back, Kotter). Charles wants out of the system as well, but knows that it’s a nearly hopeless struggle since there are no jobs available. He and a number of his friends protest regularly and have run-ins with the police not specifically for any crime but almost pre-emptively to prevent them from getting out of hand.

What I found most interesting about Claudine is the attitude of the title character not to her children but to children in general. This is someone who obviously loves her children and who does everything she can for them, but who certainly realizes exactly the path her life has taken because of all the kids. She’s justifiably upset when Charlene becomes pregnant. But when Charles gets a vasectomy so that he doesn’t fall into the same pattern of too many mouths to feed, Claudine is more upset with him than she is with her daughter.

Claudine turns on three main performances. Diahann Carroll gains gravitas as the film goes on. She’s lightweight at the start of the film, but as the problems become more serious, she becomes more serious. James Earl Jones is almost always worth watching, and he’s entertaining here as Roop. When he panics near the end of the film with everything coming down on him, his reaction is a natural and understandable one, even if it’s a cowardly one. He’s a likable guy who makes a mistake, and so it’s easy for the audience to forgive him when he makes amends.

But, surprise surprise, it’s Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs who gives the most memorable performance here. This is an actor most famous for a goody 1970s sitcom, and I’d be lying if I said I thought he had this in him. Hilton-Jacobs plays a disenfranchised, angry young man with all of the bravado, anger, and frustration that the role requires. Placed in a slightly different household, it would be easy to see Charles Price running around Coney Island with the Warriors. It’s the intensity the role needs, and there’s not a second when his resentment and disgust for virtually everything in his life isn’t evident.

I can’t say I loved Claudine, but I respect it quite a bit. It’s a much better film than I’m probably giving it credit for being.

Why to watch Claudine: An honest take on real social problems.
Why not to watch: The ending feels out of place.

2 comments:

  1. I saw this in 1974, and I don't remember all the plot but I did recall the general premise and the fine performances. Perhaps forty years is too long ago to appreciate the film. I feel like I should look for it, as it is mostly forgotten.

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    1. It's an interesting film, and I can imagine it resonated a lot in 1974. Actually, it might still resonate today.

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