top of page

Love is When a Man Brings the Groceries, Instead of Eating Yours

How the Film “Claudine” Continues to Inform Black Love Relationships, Forty-eight Years Later

By Dr. Shantella Y. Sherman, ACUMEN Publisher

It’s been forty-eight years since the film Claudine shifted the discourse on Black male-female relationships in urban areas. This Valentine's Day, The Acumen Group / Acumen Magazine looks back at the ground-breaking film to see how far we've come -- or if we've moved at all.

Clouded by the disparaging stereotypes of Black women as aggressive, angry, unfeminine, and sexually loose, popular culture reinforced these notions by casting Black women in television and film roles mostly as poor marriage material. Even as girlfriends and casual sexual partners, Black women represented a kind of pejorative default and sexual last resort. Claudine worked the stereotypes from the inside out, examining how myths and perceptions erode love Claudine (1974) became the template for Black romantic comedies by placing Hollywood heavy hitters, Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones as lovers against the backdrop of a poor Harlem neighborhood. They are not teenagers and come to the relationship as damaged and suspicious, but hopeful.

The characters Claudine Price and Rupert Marshall represented a cross-section of working-class African Americans, who had loved enough to know the score. Rupert had been married twice before and had three children he paid child support for, but whom he did not see. Claudine was the mother of six children – the products of “two marriages and two almost marriages.” Rupert works as a garbage man; she as a part-time maid to illegally supplement the welfare aid she receives. Claudine and Rupert make no promises to each other, there are few romantic overtures, and audiences appreciate seeing a couple create a space for themselves against the odds.

One Chicago Defender reviewer wrote: “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. Forty-eight years since its release, what makes the film so prophetic is its stream of consciousness – found in seditious dialogue, as well as the context in which it is delivered.

Claudine is not just a story about love in the inner city, but how love and romantic relationships become necessarily tied to the consumer republic – or the ability to use money to bolster affections. 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. To start, of Claudine’s sons, the youngest, Francis, wants to be invisible, the middle, Paul, wants to quit school to hustle, and the oldest, Charles, takes to social rebellion to combat the emotionally crippling poverty around him.

“Sometimes, I just start crying for no reason… I just want to be able to breathe, Mama; to feel like a real human being,” Charles tells Claudine in frustration.

Her two younger daughters Patrice and Lurlene, are depicted as relatively normal young girls – though Patrice has a potty mouth throughout the film. They, along with the eldest daughter, Charlene, spend time bonding with their mother, with the subject of men and relationships a common topic of conversation.

It is Charlene’s growing promiscuity, alongside her mother’s new relationship that charges the dialogue between the two of them and mimics the ideas many women in 1974 had about loving Black men. In one pivotal scene, Claudine is combing Lurlene’s hair with Patrice and Charlene lounging about the room. Charlene announces that her boyfriend Teddy (who changes his name to Abdullah) has asked her to marry him and she has accepted.

Claudine responds, “Well, be sure and tell me when the wedding is so I can make plans not to be there.” The comment is a deflating toss of words that forces Charlene to defend her feelings.

“But Mama, I love him!” she insists, which should have been enough to open a dialogue about what the fourteen-year-old believed about love. Instead, Claudine’s reproach attempts to reposition the idea of marriage as a meaningless expression of love, a fantasy that had no place in a young, Black girl’s mind. “Marriage should be based on love,” Claudine tells Charlene. “You get very little else out of it.”

Charlene wishes to legitimize her relationship through marriage and charges her mother’s bitterness to a personal fault rather than the institution. At fourteen, Charlene has experienced the binary of love simply by witnessing her mother’s desire for companionship, the social currency her mother gains in being desired by men, and the solidification of her mother’s womanhood in the production of each of her siblings through acts of love(making).

Charlene attacks her mother’s bitterness by questioning the vibrancy of her womanhood. It is a stinging attack that begs, Claudine describe why she’d had four unsuccessful marriages with men who were all fine and are [now] all gone.

“Why? Don’t you think it was you?” Charlene asks. It is the preface to a conversation, not about love, but about money and Black men’s inability to maneuver within a capitalist society if they are poorly educated and without a money-producing skill. With the extra burden of a woman and children, these men simply cannot afford to live as husbands and fathers within the home.

Abandoning the home ensured the federal government took on the financial responsibilities he may have been willing, but unable to provide. The lesson: It takes money to love and if you have no money, pride dictates you don’t stick around. In a later scene after Charlene is found to be pregnant and announces she and Abdullah will get married and both work to support their baby. Claudine delivers another crushing reality. “The two of you together will make one salary.

When the baby comes that will be three people living on half a salary – and that’s the half you can’t even count on.” There is never the faintest suggestion, beyond Claudine asking, “So what are you going to do?” that the termination of the pregnancy was an option. Charlene is then faced with the possibility of not only becoming her mother but coming to view love as her mother does.

The lesson: It takes money to love and if you have no money, pride dictates you don’t stick around. In a 1997 interview, Carroll told me that Claudine was dedicated to giving a better life to her kids and fighting to make sure they were safe. That is illuminated most forcefully in the scene where she finds Charlene is pregnant and violently the girl.

“That beating of the daughter [Charlene] was violent and I hate violence, but the violence was really directed at herself. Claudine was so disappointed in so many areas of her life and she, like so many of us, was unable to verbalize it. She made her daughter the brunt of her failures. It was hard to play, but when you hear the voice of her inner-self screaming out, it is powerful," Carroll said.

Charles provides the counterweight to Claudine’s ongoing lesson with Charlene. He views life in general as dismal and equates his inability to prosper even within his own household with his mother’s sexual relationships and subsequent reproduction. As the eldest child, with a four-year space between himself and Charlene, Charles has perhaps witnessed the softer side of his mother. He has seen Claudine enjoy love and the company of men, but also the challenges the men faced in loving her as she continued to produce children.

Like Rupert, three of the four men Claudine mentions walked into a relationship where they were expected to care for other men’s children. Charles is also his mother’s protector and most likely told the other men, as he did Rupert that “Every tear my mother sheds over you is going to cost you a pint of blood.”

The warning comes from a pattern of seeing men enter, become frustrated, then exit, leaving his mother to pick up the pieces. It is the presence of the children, though, that Charles vehemently resents and blames for his mother’s failed relationships. Charles and Claudine bicker incessantly. In one heated exchange, Charles demands to know if his mother has had sex with Rupert yet because the one thing they did not need in the house was another child. In yet another, following an argument between Rupert and Claudine, Charles baits his mother for causing the breakdown of the relationship. They have the following exchange:

Charles: “I knew that nigger was going to walk out on you… It was your own damn fault – that’s right, don’t blame nobody but yourself. You had the six kids,” he says defiantly.

Claudine: “Six kids, that’s right… that’s all I got in this world; my children.”

Charles: “I hate them!”

Claudine: “Get away from me, Charles!”

Charles: “I mean, I knew I had nothing, but I gotta share what I ain’t got?”

Charles equates Claudine’s losing Rupert to his own lack of physical and material attention from her.

To Charles, it is the six children who have damaged Claudine and made her love unmanageable; however, for Claudine, children are the tangible proof of her existence, rather than her circumstances. Charles appears angry when he is most likely love-starved. Charles does not have a girlfriend, nor does he speak of or hang around casually with girls. He is eighteen and known to be sexually involved, only after he confesses to having had a vasectomy to ensure he produced no children. Charles’ vasectomy is a strategic maneuver used by the emotionally struggling teen to experience unadulterated love from a woman, despite his poverty.

In bypassing the “social ruin” caused by producing children, Charles unceremoniously detaches himself from the generational poverty he blames for ruining his mother’s (and sister’s) chances at love. Claudine is devastated by Charles’ vasectomy and draws parallels between his ability to produce children and both his desire to live and his manhood.

“Oh, my God, Charles, you mean you had yourself fixed? Oh, Lord, I know you’ve gone crazy! You gave up your manhood?” she asks.

Charles responds, “Oh, Mama, manhood is not between the legs.”

“How could you do something so stupid? That’s what Mr. Whitey does to the Black man, he cuts off his manhood, but you did it to yourself!”

It is the first time Claudine separates Black romantic love and reproduction from the financial obligations many attach to it. Where “Mr. Whitey” economically set up Black men to war as husbands and providers, sexually, Charles had surrendered the battle without a fight. That Claudine’s conversations with Charles and Charlene could be so different – positing love (and reproduction) contradictorily as social death to Charlene and social defiance to Charles – demonstrates the internal conflict many African Americans continue to wage today. Birth control was not discussed with Charlene – except a frantic warning from Claudine that if she were not careful, she would pay a heavy price. Charlene even admonishes her mother, sarcastically as she and Rupert go out on their first date, “Mama, don’t come home pregnant.”

The idea of the 1970s sexual revolution with casual hook-ups, the expanded use of the Pill for contraception, and average American women actively Looking Mr. Goodbar, did not translate well into the lives of inner-city Black women.

On several occasions, Claudine and Rupert discuss the codes of respectability that dictated him driving her home at night no matter how late, not giving her nosey neighbors anything to gossip about, and the necessity of having him spend time not just with her, but also with her children. It is in these negotiating moments between the middle-aged lovers that viewers see how single motherhood informs Claudine’s sexual habits.

In a 1999 interview with Jones, he spoke to me of the character Rupert as demonstrating the utmost respect for Claudine despite the fact that he had little money and felt overwhelmed by her brood of kids.

“I think Roop, like me, was originally a country boy. You didn’t grab at a woman, you courted her, and you tried not to make a fool of yourself. Nevertheless, he did all the time. The kids were laughing at him and taunting him for the way he dressed, and he didn’t care. His object was to win this woman,” Jones said.

So, the lesson then, would not be that it takes money to love and if you have no money, pride dictates you don’t stick around. Audiences, according to New York Magazine writer Judith Crist, gravitated toward Claudine precisely because the film dispelled that logic.

“[Claudine and Rupert] were wise to their particular situation in Black poverty: to limited opportunities within the stereotypes that they and society have created, from the mythology of the Black women as perpetual propagator to that of the Black man as the stud who drops his seed and disappears. But they happen to be people who love, and who, therefore, find each other worth the coping,” Crist wrote.

{SPOILER ALERT} Rupert and Claudine do reunite after Charles collects his pint of blood. It is agreed that the two eldest kids would move out, leaving Rupert to manage four children, rather than six. Marriage is the only option for Rupert and Claudine. It is in accepting his proposal, getting married in the living room, and legitimizing their relationship, that Claudine takes a page from Charlene’s book. There is a common ground between the two women and a new lesson learned: Marriage should be based on love, but love cannot be based on money.


bottom of page