Directed by John Berry
Written by Lester Pine & Tina Pine
Starring Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs, Tamu Blackwell, David Kruger, Yvette Curtis, Eric Jones, Socorro Stephens
American movies tended toward big themes, with plenty of drama and action. The smaller films – character stories where the plot is less important than the people – is primarily a European thing.* But every once in a while, an American film does cover this sort of ground. Claudine is an example of this, what Virginia Woolf called a “Mrs. Brown” story that concentrates on the lives of ordinary people.
Claudine Price (Diahann Carroll) lives in Harlem, the single mother of six. She works under the table, since Welfare doesn’t pay enough, but runs the big risk of losing her benefits. She meets Rupert “Roop” Marshall (James Earl Jones), a garbageman, who asks her out on a date. Roop is bemused by the chaos of six kids, but still proceeds with the romance, even coping with the mistrust of Claudine’s oldest son, Charles (Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs),** who has seen his mother’s other husbands leave her.
Jones is wonderful. He’s one of the country’s best actors and this is a smaller-scale role than many of his, and he manages to keep his larger-than-life persona tuned to just the right levels, with plenty of charm as a romantic leading man. Diahann Carroll is is also great – she got an Oscar nomination for it – showing humor and strength.
In addition to the romance, the film has a lot to say about the difficulties and contradictions of the U.S. Welfare system. Claudine is caught in a trap; as she says, “If I don’t feed my kids, it’s child neglect. If I go out and get a job, and make a little money on the side, then that’s cheating. I stay at home and I’m lazy. I can’t win.” The movie humanizes people on public assistance and shows just how difficult it can be.
Director John Berry had a spotty career, most due to the fact that he was a victim of the Blacklist. He was starting to work regularly in Hollywood when he was one of the names named in the witch hunt and had to move to France in the early 50s. He returned to the US in the early 60s and moved his way up to features again.This was probably his best-regarded film.
The movie was a critical success, and probably made money, though it’s small budget helped, as did a soundtrack album.by Gladys Knight and the Pips. But because it was relatively quiet in tone, it faded from consciousness.
*Certainly Hollywood has little interest in that today.