Criterion Review: CLAUDINE

A classic of Black cinema joins the Criterion Collection

Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones share a sweet chemistry in Claudine, the 1974 romance now available from Criterion on Blu-ray. Carroll stars as the Claudine of the title, a thirty-something single mother of 6, who is more dependent on the welfare system than she would prefer. She works on the side as a housemaid, which is how she meets charming garbageman Roop (James Earl Jones). Claudine and Roop flirt, joke about stereotypes that have been applied to them, and end up falling for each other.

At home, Claudine is dealing with an activist son Charles (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who’d be cast in Welcome Back, Kotter the next year), a teenage daughter who wants more from her life, and four other young children who tease their mother and beg for her limited attention. A few of the lines Charles delivers still hit extremely hard in our current moment, adding a breath of urgency to this 46-year-old work.

The limitations of Claudine’s life due to structural racism are visible in the social worker visits tied to the welfare she receives, as she must hide any extra appliances that might make her day-to-day living easier. After lovemaking one night, she and Roop discuss their feelings of being trapped by their situations. Even during a visit to the welfare office after their relationship becomes serious, the bureaucracy and racist standards of the welfare system are made explicit. As Roop says, “You can’t win.” Yet along with this theme throughout Claudine, there’s such effervescent joy to the romance.

This joy weaves its way into a slapstick ending that leaves the viewer wondering at the multiple outcomes left possible. This ending, while fun and chaotic, still reminds us of the unbalanced power relationship between the police and the Black community they are supposed to serve. And let’s not forget to celebrate the scoring by Curtis Mayfield, with songs performed by Gladys Knight and the Pips that perfectly fit the onscreen action of the film. The music, the driven performances by the lead cast, and the love story make Claudine feel alive and vibrant to this 2020 viewer.

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray package for Claudine includes:

  • 4K digital restoration
  • a commentary track from 2003 with memories from castmembers Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, along with filmmaker George Tillman, Jr, and Dan Pine, son of the screenwriters.
  • illustrated audio excerpts of lead actress Carroll speaking at AFI in 1974. She tells the audience, “It was almost impossible to raise money for this film.”
  • film critic Imogen Sara Smith delivers a quick primer on director John Berry, who made films in France after being blacklisted in America
  • a 2020 conversation with filmmaker Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle) about the impact of Claudine, where he shares his belief that “the secret sauce is the music.”

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