Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Make Yours a Happy Home

By Odienator

Claudine was originally conceived as a vehicle for Diana Sands, but the onset of cancer prohibited her from playing the part. Instead, Sands suggested Diahann Carroll take the role alongside James Earl Jones. Carroll doesn't seem like the obvious choice; despite her role as a nurse on the groundbreaking sitcom Julia, Carroll was more known for glamor and glitz. Claudine has no such items within its frames. It's the story of a welfare mother with six kids who finds love with a smelly old garbage man. In the sea of blaxploitation Claudine found itself released into back in 1974, the film stood out. It's the kind of working class romantic comedy you rarely find populated with Black people, yet it's been well-calibrated for that situation by screenwriters Tina and Lester Pine.

Sands must have seen something in Carroll to make her suggest that she take the role, and what I think she saw was herself. Stripped of her glamor, Carroll is wholly convincing as the title character. Yet, Sands' ghost haunts every frame of Claudine, manifesting itself in Carroll's performance. It's in the way Claudine looks at her kids and her man, the delivery of a well timed putdown of a fool she won't suffer gladly, and the complete uninhibitedness of the performance. It feels and looks lived in, something that Sands knew how to convey. This isn't an imitation; it's an appropriation. There's a shot in the film where I looked at Carroll and saw Diana Sands staring back at me.

One can only fantasize about the movie made with the original casting, but the one that got made is still pretty damn good.

Claudine is the kind of movie that makes me happy, one that takes a premise that could easily have traveled the low road and, through character development and a good story, elevates it above expectations. This could have been a sassy, caricatured movie about a woman on welfare and her bad ass kids. But the filmmakers find the drama underneath it and they treat it with respect. We know very little about Claudine in the beginning. She's on welfare but she's also working as a domestic. As the film opens, she's taking an MTA bus to her job. Accompanying her every day is her group of fellow domestics. They joke about Claudine's lack of a sex life and their employers' lack of common sense.

The sole highlight of Claudine's work day is seeing the local garbage man, Rupert (James Earl Jones). Rupert, or Roop as he calls himself, is a fresh one. He makes comments to Claudine about how fine she looks, then asks her out on a date. Claudine declines, but Roop wears her down. He also reads her like a book. "Are you on the welfare?" he suddenly asks her. Claudine is offended, and declines his date offer a minute before she chases down his truck and changes her mind.

Back at the house, Claudine's kids are making the usual racket. Her eldest son, Charles (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) is getting involved in a Black movement targeted by the police. As the eldest, he's the most cynical about both his life and his mother's. When Roop shows up to pick up Claudine for her date, Charles looks at him with a been-there-done-that disdain. He's seen other men take his mother out, with the same end result: they leave. Sometimes, they leave kids behind when they go.

Claudine's second eldest, Charlene (Tamu) is just growing into her womanhood and is completely confused by it. Charlene is at odds with her mother, as all daughters of that age would be, but Claudine can see Charlene's future and doesn't like that it mirrors her past. Charlene's boyfriend, Teddy, I mean Abdullah (he's changed his name in one of those 70's "I'm turning Muslim in name only" phases) has been teaching her "how to socialize and hold her liquor. " When Charlene comes home drunk, Claudine pokes her in the stomach and asks "Is Abdullah teaching you about biology?" She knows that if Charlene is not careful, she could end up a teenage mother like Claudine did. This isn't explicitly stated, but Claudine gives her age in a throwaway piece of dialogue, and you can do the math.

Even though there's dissension in the house, Claudine's kids still love her and see her as a symbol of comfort. After Abdullah's drinking lesson ("I've had only one!" exclaims Charlene) turns into a crash course on vomiting, Charlene climbs into bed with her mother, who cradles her in a motherly embrace. The other two daughters join her, and they all curl up in bed together. "Pull the covers up on you," Claudine tells the youngest one at the foot of the bed. It's a small moment, but it highlights how the little details of reality are woven into the movie.

The lack of a father figure, and the multiple marriages and relationships that promise, then revoke, the possibility of a permanent dad, have a far greater effect on Claudine's four younger children. Late in the film, her two youngest sons take a heartbreaking ride through the streets of New York on a bicycle, shot mostly from their point of view by director John Berry and cin-togger Gayne Rescher. The sense of urgency conveyed by the camera depicts the feelings of the boys as they dangerously peddle alongside cars, one boy dangling perilously on the handlebars. After they reach their destination, and find it deserted, the two boys return home with the sting of being fooled again by someone into whom they put their faith.

Long before Little Miss Sunshine, Claudine dealt with a kid who just stops talking and writes things down. Roop has a bittersweet conversation with Claudine's youngest son. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" asks Roop. "Invisible," he replies as he hides under Claudine's table. This is the kid I identified with in the film; when I was his age, I had my own traumatic reasons for wanting to disappear, and I'm sure I wasn't alone in my hood. Sometimes it felt that was the only way I was going to get out--by becoming invisible. The kid starts using a pad to communicate, culminating in a punchline that is as funny as it is poignant.

Since Claudine is on welfare, we get a glimpse of her life when the welfare worker comes to visit. The children have to hide items that can be deducted, and Claudine also has to hide her relationship with Roop. The scenes are funny and frustrating, and Carroll delivers some excellent zingers to the patronizing welfare worker. Later, when Roop is discovered, he has to go to the welfare office and declare himself if he wants to continue his relationship with Claudine. In some of the reviews I've read, like this one, this entire plotline is described as problematic or phony. It is obvious these reviewers have never been on welfare in the 70's. The scenes in the welfare office, where Roxie Roker tells a 200-lb man that, if he loses his job and wants to continue seeing his woman, he has to go on welfare, are absurd. "I have to go on welfare?!" asks Roop incredulously. "You have to go on the welfare!" says Helen Willis. These scenes make Claudine the perfect double feature with Vondie Curtis-Hall's Tupac starrer, Gridlock'd, another film about bureaucratic bullshit.

I'm making Claudine sound like a brutal downer, which it is not. It is a blatantly romantic comedy set in a place you don't normally see this sort of picture. When Roop shows up for his first date with Claudine, he shows up in his convertible with his hat and his "evening attire." He may be a garbage man during the day, but he doesn't have to look like one at night. When Claudine's bathroom has been taken up by her kids, Roop offers her the use of his facilities. He promises her a fancy dinner, which Charlene accurately pegs as incorrect: "it's still gonna wind up being chicken," she says. As they leave, Charlene says "don't come back pregnant!" Claudine goes with Roop to his place, which looks accurate for his means. "We have a better class of roaches and rats here," Roop informs her. As if on cue, a better class of rodent shows up. Roop throws one of his humongous boots at it.

Roop runs Claudine a bubble bath using Joy dish detergent, then tries to assist Claudine in getting her dress off. "Maybe, when I get to know you better," she playfully tells him before slapping his hands and sending him out of the bathroom. (As a nice, realistic art direction note, Jones' character has those hanging beads in one of his doorways.) While he sets a trap for his ritzy rodent, Claudine relaxes in the tub. The look on Carroll's face implies that it's been a while since Claudine has had some time for herself. In Crooklyn, Alfre Woodard complains that she can't do anything without three or four kids "hanging from my tits!" It's many a mother's complaint. As poor Roop waits outside the bathroom, Claudine gets a tad too comfortable in her Calgon moment.

Claudine and Roop begin their romance, and it feels genuine in both its triumphs and its problems. Carroll and Jones have excellent chemistry together, and Jones has that twinkle of mischief in his eye and that devilish grin. He's not leading man handsome, but it's easy to fall in love with him in this picture. Claudine grants them a dignity that fed audiences starved for the kind of romance they had in their hood. I saw this movie in 1976 on a double feature with Bill Cosby's hospital tragicomedy Mother, Jugs and Speed, and I can attest that there were few, if any, Black romantic movies out there at the time. It was all Superfly and Trouble Man and Foxy Brown.

The romance at Claudine's center is handled sensitively and realistically. The actors dive fearlessly into their love scenes and, though Claudine is rated PG, there's a fair amount of nudity in it. This is the old school PG, the one that allowed Jason Robards to say "fuck" 8 times in All The President's Men. Both Jones and Carroll show some things off, and in Jones' case, he's naked with a capital N. I can't recall a movie where an actor so realistically portrayed nudity. After the lovin', Jones is just laying around stark naked, like any other guy who just got laid. Both he and Carroll take a natural approach to the nudity of these scenes, and it's refreshing despite the trauma of seeing Darth Vader damn near full frontal.

During their first night together, Roop and Claudine discuss each others' lives. It's a lively scene that has an arc to it; you can see the pair falling for each other even as their dialogue takes on an edge. Claudine accuses Roop of thinking she's "one of those Black bitches" who has kids and gets on welfare for the hell of it. Roop accuses her of thinking he's "one of those niggers" who makes kids and doesn't see them. (He is, actually. Roop is terrified of commitment to kids, which is going to be a problem dating a woman with 6 of them.) That line of dialogue from Jones comes back full circle in a late scene in the film where he talks openly and honestly to Claudine's kids, relating to them in a manner that best suits each one. It's a quiet moment nicely handled by Jones, who can really act when required.

Carroll can act too, and this film got her a much deserved Oscar nomination. Just like Roop, an earlier line in the screenplay comes back to get Claudine. Charlene, she of the "don't come back pregnant" advice, comes back pregnant. Her Abdullah lessons in biology have resulted in a major failure of birth control. Claudine reacts the way I expected. She whips Charlene's ass. That reviewer I cited above--he had problems with that too. I can guarantee you that if I came home pregnant, my Mom would have whipped my ass, and I know plenty of ghetto Moms who did just that to their kids. (Of course, if I came home pregnant, I'd have some serious explaining to do, as I don't have a punany. But I digress.) After Claudine loses it and regains composure, she and Charlene have a serious heart to heart. When Charlene cites that all Black men aren't bad, and then lists "good Black men like Frederick Douglass," Claudine retorts "it's too damn bad you didn't get knocked up by Frederick Douglass."

Curtis Mayfield's best post-Superfly score plays like a Greek chorus under this film. Gladys Knight and the Pips sing most of it, and I'm especially partial to the song that plays over the final scene in the film (and from which I took the title of this piece). Roop and Claudine end up together, and during their wedding, Charles barges in on the run from the police. Thanks to Charles' protest rally, the entire family winds up being arrested. The closing credits play over them riding off, and then being released by the cops. The family that gets arrested together stays together, and in a Black movie, a two parent family is a wonderful thing that we don't see often enough.

Your homework assignment:

Don't come home pregnant.

Were you expecting R. Kelly?


Steven Boone said...

Excellent piece, great photos, but most important: the appearance of your other doppleganger, young James Earl Jones.

Claudine's "one of those black bitches..." rant would have been dynamite in Diana Sands' hands. Diahann Carroll was always a solid actress but always just a shade too Dynasty prim for some of her down-to-earth roles. But, yeah, her chemistry with Thulsa Doom sells it.

I wonder if Spike Lee and DP Arthur Jafa screened Claudine while prepping Crooklyn. Some of those stills seem straight outta-- um, you know.

odienator said...

I wonder if Spike Lee and DP Arthur Jafa screened Claudine while prepping Crooklyn.

I would not be surprised. Crooklyn takes place the same time this movie does.

As for young James Earl Jones, I once did a speech from The Great White Hope back in high school. The universe turned in on itself that day.

Ali Arikan said...

Were you expecting R Kelly?

Kudos, sir.

Nsimone4me said...

I have been working on an updated version starring Whitney Houston as Claudine and Ice Cube as a younger Ruben. We got couger Claudine, we got nosey neighbors, Ruben young, in arrears, with his own kids, we have Claudines 6 kids, recession, Obama, computer dating, all the makings of a great updated version of a great movie. Thoughts? THis is a light hearted comedy, I hope TP reads this blog! Oh lets not forget that great soundtrack that we could dust off..Add a little suger! Angie Stone's Version. Gladys can open and Mary J resings the closing number! Or one of the newbies like Ledisi or Keisha Cole..I am open to suggestions.

odienator said...

Nsimone4me, I've always been against remakes of movies I thought were fine. Nobody seems to take a second crack at a failure, which to me would make more sense. I don't think Whitney and Ice Cube would have one iota of chemistry, either. The woman had no chemistry with Denzel, for God's sake, and he's a lot more handsome than Ice Cube. (Full disclosure: people say with a full beard I resemble Ice Cube.)

With that said, I wish you the best of luck in bringing your vision to the screen. There aren't many Black romances on the screen nowadays, despite what Tyler Perry believes he is doing. (hey, Tyler, if you are reading: I'm not sorry for being light-skinned and having money and an education! Bougie my ass!)

Nothing will replace James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll in my heart, but I'm all for supporting an intelligent Black romance film.

Montina Portis said...

Excellent commentary! We're tackling this film this week on The SPARKWISDOM Show. How much really has changed for the Black Single Mom from 1974 to now? This film is an excellent portrayal of Black Romance.