Director: John Berry
Screenwriters: Tina Pine, Lester Pine
by Yvonne M. Jones for The Black List Blog
1974 was an incredible year for American film, but Claudine was different from now-classics like Blazing Saddles, Chinatown, A Woman Under the Influence, and Young Frankenstein — and only shared trace DNA with blaxploitation flicks like Foxy Brown and Willie Dynamite.
Claudine is a love triangle featuring Diahann Carroll as Claudine Price, a single working mother with six kids from “two marriages and two almost marriages”; James Earl Jones as Rupert Marshall, a twice-divorced garbage collector whose kids are being raised far away; and “Mr. Welfare, the nosiest husband in the world.”
When Claudine hit theaters, black America was feeling the sting of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Its suggestion that the government adopt a policy of “benign neglect” toward black families like Claudine´s landed like a fist.
It’s hard to imagine a studio greenlighting a film like this today. That would be our loss, because this romantic dramedy about a woman doing her damnedest for herself, her kids, and her man is priceless. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll idly wonder if you could pull off a dashiki, you’ll advocate for welfare reform AND a $15 minimum wage.
It’s the least you can do for Claudine, a housemaid who walks her kids to school before busing it to her low-paying suburban job. That’s where she has a fateful meet-cute with Rupert, her employers’ gap-toothed garbage man.
Rupert has a big question after charming her into a low budget, high romance date: How’d she wind up with six kids?
“Well, haven’t you heard about us ignorant black bitches, always got to be layin’ up with some dude just grinding out them babies for the taxpayers to take care of? I get thirty bucks a piece for those kids. Oh, I’m living like a queen on welfare.”
Her speech could easily run as an alternative fact on any Fox News program today, sans wounded pride. Still, they quickly call the sexiest of truces. When Rupert drives her home, Claudine tells him her expectations are low. “We’ll just enjoy each other ’til it’s over, nice goodbye, nice memories.”
Months pass and that casual thing is a faint memory; they are both all in. But soon after Rupert invites Claudine and her brood to his bachelor pad and announces that Mr. Welfare’s penalties be damned, they’re getting married, his past comes back to haunt him.
Is love enough when you’re trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents? It’s Claudine’s story, but the film is also a powerful commentary on manhood, the economics of black love, what children really need from their parents, and why putting one foot in front of the other is often the bravest thing you can do.
Add a soulful Greek chorus from the Gladys Knight & the Pips and Curtis Mayfield soundtrack, and it’s easy to see why a modest movie about a single black working welfare mom became a new kind of classic.