The Exhausted Radiance of Claudine

The Exhausted Radiance of Claudine

The 1974 romance Claudine is one of the few true depictions of working-class life in a decade of great films that rarely addressed the topic.  

Diahann Carroll in Claudine (Courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

In an episode of Norman Lear’s 1970s sitcom Good Times, the mother (Esther Rolle) and father (John Amos) raising their kids in the Chicago projects look for a movie to see on their date night, and the only thing showing that isn’t a blaxploitation outing is the 1974 romance Claudine. Twentieth Century Fox used that difference in order to sell the movie. In contrast to the badass poses struck in the ads for Shaft and Super Fly and Foxy Brown and Slaughter and Hell Up in Harlem and all the rest, the poster for Claudine showed a beaming extended family striding toward the camera above the tagline, “A heart and soul comedy. Can you dig it?” But far from the family-friendly sap that poster promised, Claudine, which has been released on DVD and Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection, reaches right back to the tough-nosed and wised-up attitudes that characterized American comedies and melodramas in the 1930s. Like those movies, it cuts right through Hollywood sentimentality, showing life as it’s lived by what the Golden Age British mystery novelist Henry Wade called “hard-worked people.”

Claudine (Diahann Carroll) is thirty-six and in eighteen years has acquired two ex-husbands, two ex-almost-husbands, and six kids. All seven of them are squeezed into a rundown Harlem apartment where they live on top of one another, fighting for time in the bathroom, or clustered in front of a boxy old flickering TV, the oldest girl Charlene (the remarkable Tamu) taking offense that her Black siblings are cheering on Tarzan. The family’s only regular visitor is the one they could do without: the snooty welfare officer ready to take any minor improvement, even one as small as a new iron or coffee pot, as an excuse to reduce Claudine’s benefits. What the welfare lady doesn’t know is that Claudine is working, catching the bus to Westchester every weekday for a gig as maid to a bitchy boss who complains that she’s late but otherwise doesn’t acknowledge her existence. It’s there that Claudine and Roop (James Earl Jones) get an eyeful of one another. What he sees is a gorgeous woman, clearly unused to being treated as a gorgeous woman. And what Claudine sees when Roop hoists trash cans into the garbage truck he works on is a solidly built workingman, muscles fighting it out with incipient fat, whose smile is that of someone who hasn’t forgotten the possibility of pleasure. The romance catches them both unawares because it isn’t deterred by the exhaustion that threatens to overtake them. The first night they go out, Roop shows up in his slick white convertible before Claudine even gets home from work. When she does turn up, laden with groceries, she can’t get time in her own bathroom. She finally grabs a dress and decides to bathe and change at Roop’s place. Their evening out becomes an evening in with Claudine falling asleep in Roop’s tub, and then falling into his bed.

The movies of the 1970s in which women coming out of bad marriages get a second chance at love were some of the first of the era to be in tune with contemporary feminist sensibility. In movies like Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman, the obstacles are almost always dilemmas of independence versus freedom. Does the heroine want to settle when she’s certain that there exists an ephemeral something more? Those were always questions for people who had the options to entertain them. For Claudine, working so hard to take care of her family that she has no time to define herself any other way, those questions would be alien and frivolous.

From the start of her relationship with Roop, Claudine is determined to enjoy it while she can and to go on her way, she hopes amicably, when it ends. But when the two realize that this could be something more, the problems that surface aren’t questions of commitment or independence or finding their identity. These characters know who they are, and they know what it is that’s getting in their way. Claudine’s welfare payments are so pitiful she has to work under the table. The movie doesn’t judge her for that, though just two years later, Ronald Reagan, making his first run for president, would tell racist stories about welfare queens to stoke the white resentment that would carry him to the White House in 1980. Claudine’s fiddling the welfare state is in a movie tradition with the starving chorus girls in Gold Diggers of 1933 stealing their neighbor’s milk. It’s what working people do to survive.

It’s bad enough that Claudine’s a grown woman having to answer nosey questions about who she’s keeping company with. What Claudine and Roop discover when they go to the welfare office to ask about their options is a real-life version of the fractured logic of a Marx Brothers routine. If Roop’s earnings come into the household, Claudine’s benefits go away. Roop has three kids elsewhere that he doesn’t support. He wants to do everything right this time, including being a father to Claudine’s kids. For him, choosing welfare means not just losing his own self-respect but becoming, in the eyes of the woman he loves, another lazy Black man. That’s not Claudine’s view of Roop, or the movie’s. But it’s how Roop feels about himself. The movie’s exasperation is reserved for a system that reduces everything that gives pleasure to an entry on a balance sheet, for the soul-sucking insanity of being penalized for falling in love.

James Earl Jones, a big man, has always known how to use his bulk to convey authority. Here, giddy with joy when Carroll’s Claudine agrees to go out with him, he has the physical lightness that used to make Jackie Gleason bounce across the room as if he were filled with helium. Getting up from the bed where Claudine is waiting for him to tend to a suddenly occupied mousetrap, Jones, walking freely around the apartment naked, gives Roop the pride of someone who’s rediscovered his body is good for something beyond lugging trash cans. And when Roop feels cornered and that shine in his eyes turns haunted and scared, Jones makes you feel that Roop is aging by the minute, his bearish build the equivalent of Marley’s chain, yet affixed on this side of the grave. It’s perhaps Jones’s finest screen work.

By the time Carroll starred in Claudine, she already meant something to Black audiences: In Julia, the sitcom she starred in for three years as a nurse and single mother who lost her husband in Vietnam, Carroll was the first Black woman to headline an American television show who wasn’t playing a maid or a racist cartoon. Carroll, who always exuded a kind of supper-club glamour, might not seem a natural choice to play Claudine, who has lived a life like the characters Barbara Stanwyck played in the tough-minded melodramas she made in the 1930s. (In fact, the part was written for the great Diana Sands, who had to drop out after a diagnosis of terminal cancer. It was Sands who suggested her friend Carroll take over the part; she died before the film was released.) But there are plenty of beautiful people struggling to stay afloat in real life. And it has never stopped being essential for African-American moviegoers to have images of glamour and beauty they can call their own. The essayist Gayle Pemberton said that her movie-fan mother rejected the cheap imitations of glamour offered Black moviegoers in the pictures that played the Chitlin’ Circuit. For Pemberton’s mom it was Clark Gable and Joan Crawford or nothing.

In his book The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin said that Black performers brought a reality to the screen that threatened to collapse the artifice around them. That was true of many stunning actresses of 1970s American cinema—Cicely Tyson in her legendary performance as a sharecropper’s wife in Sounder (the closest American commercial movies have ever come to the purity of the great humanist films of Vittorio De Sica and Satyajit Ray); Diana Ross, “stalking” the screen (in Greil Marcus’s phrase) as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues; Pam Grier putting human flesh on the revenge fantasies of Coffy and Foxy Brown; and Carroll in this film. As Claudine, Carroll conveys what you might call an exhausted radiance. She doesn’t try to drab herself down in the way that always suckers people into praising a performer’s “honesty.” Everything that’s careworn about Claudine is on the inside, and the tension in this performance is how it keeps threatening to overwhelm the outside. A performer’s charisma and physical beauty can create their own poignancy in the movies. In Claudine, the sadness isn’t just of someone forced to jump through hoops in order to survive; it’s someone as vital and beautiful as Carroll threatened with having that vitality leeched out of her.

And yet for such a glamorous presence, Carroll doesn’t hold back. In an astonishing sequence, Claudine realizes Charlene is pregnant and, seeing her daughter about to embark on the mistakes that have made her life such a trial, she snaps and beats the pregnant girl with a hairbrush before the both of them collapse in tears. To watch that moment is to realize how infantilized we have become as moviegoers. Were the scene done today, Claudine would have to be identified as an abuser, Charlene as a victim, and thus reducing both to sociological and psychological types that distance us from them as human beings and deny that their behavior is part of the potential in each of us. The focus would be on healing, instead of understanding the twisted and inseparable roots of love and worry and resentment at the heart of the scene. Trying to disentangle them is like trying to retrieve a ball from a thicket of brambles. Only a fool would think you could do so without bleeding.

There is another uncomfortable truth about Claudine that may make it difficult for today’s audiences, at least for white progressives who have never been able to acknowledge the traditional and even conservative feeling that lies at the heart of much Black family life. The characters in Claudine are suffering not only from President Nixon’s “benign neglect” but from the way civil rights had fallen out of fashion. White liberals in the 1970s assumed that the battles that needed to be fought were won (we have overcome). Claudine and Roop are living in a system that keeps them in poverty and frustrates, if not outright punishes, their attempts to get out. But this is a world where, despite the youth revolution of a few years previous, parents still lay down the law to their children; where economic realities mean the sexual experimentation of young people can become life-defining traps. Claudine’s son Charles (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) has become involved with local activists, but for Claudine, that’s nothing but a way for the boy to get himself in trouble, though there’s no question that everyone will come to his defense when he does. If you talked revolution to Claudine or Roop, they’d tell you to cut the bullshit and get back to the work of life. And from the lumpy walls in Claudine’s apartment to the scrubby streets outside, from the depths to which people feel the pleasures allotted them to the general sense that disaster is always a possibility, Claudine is one of the few true depictions of working-class life in a decade of great films that didn’t often address the topic.

A decade after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report “The Negro Family” would justify the cliches of pathology that still poison attitudes toward African Americans (“the newest scientific explanation of white supremacy,” Albert Murray called it), Claudine and Roop are an implicit rejoinder to that report’s straw figures of the castrating Black matriarch and the castrated Black male. The image that adorned the movie’s poster, of a smiling family spread out in a line, is the final one in the movie, and it escapes the family-friendly advertising concept it seems invented to embody. Claudine doesn’t resolve the question of how this newly forged family is to live, nor does it tell us how Roop will deal with the children he abandoned. But when you look at these characters, you see people buoyed by each other. It’s an image of people who have slipped not just the police wagon into which they’ve all recently been scooped, but the straitjackets of the do-gooders, the constraints of anyone who’d deny them this—taking the sun, walking the streets with the confidence of folks who have as much right to pleasure as anyone.

Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You.