Charming, engrossing, and socially relevant, the small-scale dramedy Claudine is an anomaly among ’70s pictures about African-American life. Eschewing the militant politics of underground films and the sleazy grit of blaxploitation flicks, Claudine tells a simple human story in an accessible style. Further, the movie is rooted in respect for individuals who survive life below the poverty line with their dignity intact. Although this is an unmistakably a black story, exploring the myriad ways social ills complicate life for a family in Harlem, the themes of Claudine are relatable to anyone who has faced difficulty balancing family and finances. If the movie has a noteworthy flaw, it’s that Claudine sometimes employs sitcom-style cuteness in terms of dialogue and presentation—but the underlying story is so grounded that the cuteness is at most an occasional distraction.
Diahann Carroll, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance, plays Claudine Price, the single mother of six who’s squeaking by on welfare after being abandoned by every man to whom she’s been married or with whom she’s been romantically involved. The beautiful but tough Claudine catches the eye of jovial trash collector Rupert Marshall (James Earl Jones), who eventually persuades Claudine to go out on a date. Rupert encounters resistance as soon as he meets Claudine’s kids, who haven’t met many trustworthy men. Nonetheless, Rupert wins over all of Claudine’s spirited offspring except her oldest son, Charles (Laurence Hilton-Jacobs), who has a chip on his shoulder the size of Manhattan Island.
Aside from the lively performances and sensitive writing, the most interesting aspect of Claudine is the film’s exploration of what welfare means in the life of a woman like Claudine. She can’t make enough money through menial jobs to support her children, so she needs government assistance, but even welfare can’t bridge the gap between expenses and income. Therefore, Claudine must lie to her welfare officer once she starts dating Rupert, because, technically, his participation in the family represents additional income—even though his presence in the long run isn’t guaranteed. It’s fascinating to watch a proud woman navigate this moral quagmire, and it’s informative to see how Rupert recognizes that his interest in Claudine carries economic baggage. Given the feather-light premises of most romantic comedies, which tend to involve characters with all the options in the world, Claudine represents an unusually plugged-in take on the rom-com genre.
It’s also a great pleasure to see the chemistry between Carroll and Jones. Not to downplay the many virtues of Carroll’s leading performance, the mixture of anguish and approachability within Jones’ performance gives Claudine much of its texture. Guiding these actors is director John Berry, a veteran of the studio era who was blacklisted for his left-leaning politics in the ’50s; Claudine was one of several African-American-themed movies Berry directed upon his return from Hollywood exile. Another notable Claudine player is composer Curtis Mayfield, who created the score as well as a handful of songs that are performed by Gladys Knight & the Pips.