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  Claudine Welfare Queen
Year: 1974
Director: John Berry
Stars: Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Tamu Blackwell, David Kruger, Yvette Curtis, Eric Jones, Socorro Stephens, Adam Wade, C. Harrison Avery, Mordecai Lawner, Elisa Loti, Roxie Roker, Jane Van Leer, Judy Mills, Stefan Gierasch
Genre: Comedy, Drama, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Claudine (Diahann Carroll) is a single mother of six who gets by on welfare in Harlem, but only just, as she has to work as a maid in a rich, white neighbourhood to make ends meet - away from the prying eyes of the welfare people. She tells the ladies on her usual bus ride to work that she is feeling something lacking from her life, and they all agree she needs a man, but for one thing, she has tried that more than once and always ends up abandoned with another mouth to feed, and also if she does get a boyfriend, she will have to tell the welfare office about him as it will affect the money they give her if she receives any help from this putative partner too...

So is it worth being in love at all? Claudine is not the sole character to wonder such a thing as her film progresses, but if it is recalled today it will be because of its leading lady, one of the classiest actresses of her generation who took a change of pace when she accepted this role. She had played a single mother before, in the sitcom Julia which was groundbreaking for presenting an African American woman in the lead who was not a maid - Ethel Walters had been the first such person of colour to lead her own TV show with Beulah, but as one of those servant characters who too often were the only chance black performers had to appear in mainstream projects, for decades.

There were films made for African American audiences, but they were impoverished affairs, and Julia's big idea was that this woman was no different in her hopes, dreams and lifestyle than a white woman in the same position. As a comedy, it was as unadventurous as they come, but as a statement of social innovation, it was important - however, it came in for criticism from the American blacks as a fantasy absolutely divorced from the real experiences of the majority of their lives. Claudine could be regarded as an antidote to that, yet it too came in for criticism as much of a fantasy of inner cities in the United States as Julia had been when serving up middle class values.

Julia, the character, had lost her husband in Vietnam, in case you were feeling like lambasting her for being a single mother, then, as now, a group which was not always welcomed or understood by the more conservative areas in many nations. Claudine, on the other hand, could be guilty of going too far the other way, there were of course single parent families with many kids, but the script here by husband and wife duo Tina and Lester Pine chose didacticism when a little more subtlety would not have gone amiss. There's a reason, despite Carroll's Oscar nomination, this film is often lumped in with the blaxploitation movement in seventies Hollywood, movies for black audiences too regularly made by white talents behind the camera: its director John Berry had been blacklisted in the fifties, and low budgeters like this were where he ended up.

All this said, and it is easy to criticise a film that features a mother beating up her teenage daughter with a hairbrush for getting pregnant, or one where her eldest son's solution to inner city problems is to have a vasectomy aged eighteen (did anyone really do this?), there is a reason Claudine is fondly remembered by some, if it is remembered at all - it had renewed exposure when Carroll died, though that was down to her awards nominations for the part. It is because she and her screen beau, a garbage man played by James Earl Jones, entertained such great chemistry, so that in amongst all this contrived drama and humour you could genuinely believe this pair were attracted to each other and want the best for their relationship. This even though events conspire to make it extremely difficult for love to blossom in a hardscrabble world, and a predictable crisis erupts in the last act, but the two leads shone together, and were motive enough to see the movie. Although others may be curious to see Jones naked, which oddly happened more than once. Music by Curtis Mayfield, mostly songs performed by Gladys Knight and the Pips, not his greatest work, but hey, it was Curtis in 1974, that counts for a lot.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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