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"Claudine," 50 Years Later

The 70s Rom-Com Highlights Eugenic Theories Tied to Poverty; Celebrates Life of Diahann Carroll 
ACUMEN News Report 















It has been fifty years since Hollywood hit a home run with the release of the film “Claudine.” Starring legendary actors Diahann Carroll (“Dynasty,” “Carmen Jones,” “Eve’s Bayou”) and James Earl Jones (“Great White Hope,” “Star Wars,” “Coming to America”), the feature production became the template for Black romantic comedies by placing two would-be lovers against a headwind of opposition including past relationships, Claudine’s six children, and the welfare caseworkers. Many Acumen audiences are familiar with Dr. Shantella Sherman's use of the film Claudine as an entry point to understanding the eugenic framing of welfare policies that worked along a premise of promiscuous and feebleminded women reproducing children that would become burdens on the state through their mental and emotional deficits, criminal and violent behaviors, and their degenerate influence on otherwise civilized Americans.  In this way, Claudine was less about the relationship between Claudine and Rupert, and more about the potential dangers of dysgenic unions on the rest of society. 

Rupert Marshall works as a garbageman; Claudine Price as a part-time maid to illegally supplement the welfare assistance that she receives. They meet in passing on her way to work, they agree to a date, and he shows up at her home that evening where he encounters her six children (Charles, Charlene, Paul, Patrice, Francis, and Lurlene). Claudine and Rupert make no promises to each other, there are few romantic overtures, and while decidedly working class, the two seem well-suited for each other.  When the film premiered — audiences appreciated seeing a couple create a space for themselves against the odds.

One Chicago Defender reviewer wrote at the film’s premiere: “Unlike the majority of films that deal with some sudden tragedy or existential influence that comes into a happy home and threatens to tear a loving, affluent family apart, “Claudine” deals with real-life, kick-you-in-the-butt problems — paying the bills, putting food on the table, and the sheer difficulty of surviving in a tough and often unfair inner-city world.”

In many ways, “Claudine” pushed the underlying issues facing Black romantic relationships to the forefront: finances, the impact of exes on current expectations, children, and divergent relationship desires. Rupert has kids of his own that only figure into the storyline when their mother files for additional child support.  Rupert runs full-stop into the Price household, attempting to parent her children and be the example they need, despite having little money.  Charles, the oldest is a revolutionary who has quit school, Paul has been embarrassed by teachers and hangs out with pimps and street gamblers instead of going back to class, Francis wants to be invisible; the girls, Charlene who is only fourteen, finds comfort in the arms of a new boyfriend, Patrice is a know-it-all; and Lurlene, the baby, enjoys the benefit of being relatively safe from the daily ruckus of the home.  As Rupert laments to Claudine, loving her with those kids, "is a big load."


Fifty years after its release, what makes the film so prophetic is its stream of consciousness found in revolutionary dialogue and tongue-in-cheek challenges to stereotype. Like Rupert asking Claudine how she ended up with six kids and her responding, “Haven’t you heard about us ignorant Black bitches, just laying up grinding out babies for the taxpayers to take care of?”

Viewers will be taken aback by the social worker showing up unannounced to snoop about the Price home and interrogate Claudine about rumors of a man visiting the household. They will find comedy, but also note the sense of humiliation Claudine and her children shoulder having to hide gifts given to them by Rupert — many taken from the garbage he collects — from the social worker for risk of being financially penalized.

Similarly, audiences gain an awareness of aid policies that dictated the behaviors and associations of women with dependent children and forced men out of the household as a condition of family support.

Marching in lockstep with the amazing scriptwriting and performances by the actors is the soundtrack, written by Curtis Mayfield and branded into listeners’ souls by the iconic Gladys Knight. Indeed, Knight’s soul-stirring cry from a darkened screen, “How can I work out this sweet relation …and let us deal with love?” opens the film. The soundtrack offers the perfect accompaniment to the emotional roller-coaster “Claudine” creates and is as powerful today as it was in theaters.

Claudine is not just a story about love in the inner city, but also how romantic relationships become necessarily tied to the consumer republic — or the ability to use money to bolster affection.  As such, the film also demonstrates how the lack of money can negate the manhood, womanhood, and personhood of those unable to afford playing the game of love.

Claudine’s relationship with Rupert, in many ways, is an antecedent to larger issues of love. They are expressed most fluidly, not through the lovers, but between Claudine and her children — particularly the two eldest, Charles and Charlene, and then between Rupert and Claudine’s children. A treat includes glimpsing actor Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (“Welcome Back Kotter,” “The Jacksons: An American Dream”) as Claudine’s young street soldier Charles. Hilton-Jacobs is surreal as the sharp, but socially dispossessed eldest child.


One great disappointment for this editor is that a sequel to “Claudine” did not materialize before the death of Diahann Carroll.


The Bluray is a visually clean production that has a restored appearance and sound. It is the perfect introduction to the eugenic theories of inherited pathology, as well as the sociological and psychological underpinning of poverty management. The new release features an invaluable audio commentary recorded in 2003 with Carroll, Jones, Hilton-Jacobs, filmmaker George Tillman Jr., and Dan Pine, the son of screenwriters Lester and Tina Pine. Supplemental features to the film include a May 1974 recording of Carroll at the American Film Institute’s Harold Lloyd Master Seminar series, where she discusses the making of “Claudine.” For the uninitiated, this film is the perfect introduction to family-oriented, well-crafted dramas. For fans of the film, this release is worth the purchase for the features and memories alone.


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