I know I need somethingFrom “Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day” (1978), by Nikki Giovanni
While the screen is still dark, Gladys Knight’s voice drifts in, in a strong, sincere belt: “How can I / Work out this sweet relation?” A chorus of male voices answers: “Let us deal with love.” A tableau of highways, north- and southbound traffic beneath New York City’s Triborough Bridge against the dense morning fog. The eaves of brown buildings. A city block. A line of seven pedestrians turns a corner, filling the sidewalk; they pass briskly under the canopy of the Crystal Café and Lounge. The block is shabby, yet joyously appointed. The woman in the middle of the procession wears a paisley tea-length work skirt and blouse, her hair pulled back into a neat chignon. She holds a battered shopping bag and the arms of the children at her flanks as she kisses them goodbye. One by one they part, until she is alone, running for the bus. Gladys and her backing vocalists—her band, the Pips—are still singing.
We follow the woman to the bus, where she joins four other women seated in the back. They share the kind of banter children hear only when they eavesdrop: knowing, barely coded, tongue-in-cheek euphemisms about sex and women’s desire. We learn that the woman’s name is Claudine, that she is tired after another sleepless night of headaches, that she worries after her children and takes little time for herself. “Girl, don’t you know a woman has to have her vitamin F,” one of the bus riders says, and the others laugh. Claudine laughs too. “I can’t be sleeping around, ’cause I got these children,” she says.
This tension between respectable, dutiful motherhood and female sexuality, complicated by race and class dynamics, animates the film Claudine, which opened in theaters in April 1974. During the seventies, Black cinema began to flourish and grew many branches. Hollywood studios churned out blaxploitation films, many of them formulaic cops-and-robbers flicks, after Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) made more than $15 million at the box office on a budget of $150,000. Often, women in these movies played sex workers or part-time lovers—sexually liberated characters relegated to the background. Black men asserted power through a pointed, brittle masculinity. Films starring Pam Grier such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) inverted the gender balance while hewing to the same tropes. A shift happened when actor Sidney Poitier made his directorial debut in 1972 with Buck and the Preacher, starring Harry Belafonte and Poitier himself. He went on to create and appear in a much-beloved trio of comedies also starring Bill Cosby, beginning with Uptown Saturday Night (1974). These films, with their lighthearted moments of slapstick and warm depiction of Black male camaraderie, were, as the scholar Mark Anthony Neal has put it, “a calculated attempt to distinguish some forms of Black film from the blaxploitation fare that had come to dominate the genre.” Claudine arrived in this milieu of plenty. It was another alternative to blaxploitation: a woman’s story, a family drama, a romance with politics. Claudine was the first feature released by Third World Cinema Corporation, the all-too-short-lived production house founded in 1971 by a collective of Black and Latinx artists, including Ossie Davis, Rita Moreno, and Piri Thomas, to “elevate the standards of films dealing with minorities,” according to Jet magazine—both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.
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I cannot place where or when I first saw Claudine, which debuted six years before I was born. It seems to have always been a film I knew and loved. That’s probably because the people in my family adored it, the film’s language a shared secret I learned almost by a kind of osmosis, the same way I learned other mysteries of my inheritance. Claudine Price—a thirty-six-year-old mother of six living in a four-room, tenement-style apartment in Harlem—is no-nonsense and disciplined, with a sharp wit and an almost-buried yearning for tenderness. Diahann Carroll was considered by some to be too glamorous for the title role. The push and pull between the toughness of Claudine’s circumstances and her grace, manifested in her physical beauty but also in her deftness at problem-solving and air of astute competence, is, for me—and, I suspect, for those I love—key to the film’s realism and enduring appeal.
“With Claudine, I was looking for our mother. What did she long for? What had she given up? Did she believe in love? Even though she had us, was she lonely?”
The gulf between my two older siblings and me is so wide, I often say we had different mothers. Mine was in her forties and tired. She wore glasses every day and sat glued to the television when I wanted her to jump and play and talk to me. Theirs went dancing and wore bell-bottoms that cinched in at the waist, and blouses with wide collars and orange paisley patterns. I’d find clues to that other world at the tail ends of conversations, in my sister’s Prince, my brother’s Stevie, my mother’s stack of albums by Sister Sledge and the Isleys. In the earlier time, my grandmother had still been alive and helped Mama with her two children. Then it was only my mother with us, and soon my siblings grew into their own lives.
We were all artists; films and songs and books gave words and color to our longing. When I saw Crooklyn (1994), Spike and Joie Lee’s homage to growing up in the warmth of a Black Brooklyn seventies summer, I searched for the shadows of my siblings: the inside jokes and dance marathons and sidewalk games I’d missed. With Claudine, I was looking for our mother. What did she long for? What had she given up? Did she believe in love? Even though she had us, was she lonely? There are ways in which our mothers resist being seen.
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Claudine was filmed during the late summer and early autumn of 1973—mainly on the corner of Edgecombe Avenue and 142nd Street and along the busy intersection of 125th and Broadway—long after, in the words of Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, “white New Yorkers quit Harlem.” Carroll was newly thirty-eight. Her friend Diana Sands—who’d earned Tony nominations for her work in The Owl and the Pussycat, in 1965, and Blues for Mr. Charlie, the year before—had initially been cast in the role. A week into filming, Sands collapsed; once it became clear she would not be able to return to set, she recommended Carroll as her replacement. Both women had been born in New York City. Within two months, Sands would be dead of pancreatic cancer. She was thirty-nine.
Carroll’s first film appearance was as the chorus member Myrt in the 1954 musical Carmen Jones, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Dorothy Dandridge. Famously, for her performance in that film, Dandridge would become the first African American lead-actress Oscar nominee. (A Black woman wouldn’t win in the category until Halle Berry did, in 2002, for Monster’s Ball. In Berry’s acceptance speech, she named both Dandridge and Carroll, who was nominated for Claudine, in gratitude.) In 1968—three years after Dandridge, too, had died well before her time—Carroll took the titular role in NBC’s Julia, the first sitcom centered around a Black professional woman. By the time Claudine came around, Carroll was hungry for a new challenge. Julia had run for three seasons and been successful enough, but the show was constrained by its respectability politics. Its characters came off as stiff, too pristine to feel human. Carroll, who died in 2019, called her work on Claudine a “liberating and gratifying experience.”
After the Third World Cinema Corporation had acquired the screenplay, by the married duo Tina and Lester Pine—whose previous work included A Man Called Adam (1966), starring Sammy Davis Jr., and Popi (1969), with Alan Arkin and Rita Moreno—the setting was moved from Watts, in Los Angeles, to the company’s home of New York. And soon, John Berry, a Bronx-born veteran filmmaker of Polish descent, signed on as director. A former child performer, Berry had acted on Broadway, including in the Orson Welles–directed adaptation of Native Son (1941), before beginning his career as a film director with Miss Susie Slagle’s (1946). Berry worked steadily in Hollywood until 1951, when he was blacklisted after fellow filmmaker Edward Dmytryk accused him of being a Communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Following a period of self-exile in France, Berry was again in the United States by the midsixties, directing television. It wasn’t until Claudine that he returned to American filmmaking.
In the film, Claudine falls in love with a tall and charming sanitation man working along the route of the suburban home in which she is employed as a maid. Rupert “Roop” Marshall, as played by James Earl Jones, is lithe and sinewy, walking on the balls of his feet with the slick gait of a cat daddy, but sturdier. Younger audiences most familiar with Jones’s roles in Coming to America (1988) and Cry, the Beloved Country (1995), or his voice work in the Star Wars and Lion King films, will be particularly disarmed by his presence here. Before his baritone became recognizable for its stentorian authority, before his frame took on the girth of a kind uncle’s, Jones’s turn as Carroll’s leading man revealed an earthy, magnetic sex appeal. The connection between Roop and Claudine feels lived-in and real—a product of immense professionalism, trust, and mutual respect. When a joke lingers in the air of a frame they share, laughter lights up their faces, runs like a current through their limbs. Where the screenplay falters, when a scenario feels implausible, teeters on caricature—as when Roop threatens to report Claudine’s job to the welfare agency; when he tries to split town to avoid paying child support for his own kids, who live out of state; or when Claudine’s second-oldest boy cuts school to shoot craps—the fully embodied performances fill out the story. A true glance, a flash of a smile that catches the right light, an embrace that looks both soft and certain—it is the details that make Claudine sing, give the film cohesion, make it a memory to return to.
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It was mostly for jobs that Black people had fled the rural South for New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and other cities in the North and Midwest, and on the West Coast, starting in the early twentieth century. But it was also for a chance at a humane life. With two girls and a boy younger than five years old, my grandmother left her farm in Clarksdale, Mississippi, for work in Chicago and Detroit before settling, ultimately, in Memphis. In our family’s oral tradition, it was the murder of her older brother, a landowner who’d come to town on his own horse, drawing the ire and jealous attention of white residents, that sent her packing. City life, however, offered no rest. “The buildings are old and in desperate need of repair, the streets are crowded and dirty, there are too many human beings per square block,” writes James Baldwin in a 1948 essay on Harlem. Originally Lenape land, settled by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, and eventually stretching from 110th Street up to the Harlem River, Harlem became a locus of African American cultural life after the First World War. By the twenties, it was home to the nation’s largest concentration of Black people. An artistic flowering there—Bessie Smith’s singing at the Lafayette Theatre on 132nd Street; Gladys Bentley’s shows at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House on 133rd; A’Lelia Walker’s parties on 136th—gave birth to the music and dance of the modern world. By the thirties, the opulence seen in James Van Der Zee’s photos, the furs and lace adornments and well-oiled Model Ts, would vanish.
In the late winter of 1935, a worker at a white-owned Harlem five-and-dime store apprehended a sixteen-year-old Black Puerto Rican boy for shoplifting; a demonstration started outside the building, and crowds destroyed the edifices of several other white-owned stores. On an August evening in 1943, a white police officer tried to arrest a Black woman near a hotel at 126th and Eighth Avenue when she, according to the Daily News, grew “loud and boisterous.” A Black soldier intervened and ended up shot, wounded, and admitted to the Sydenham Hospital. Rumors claimed he’d been murdered. Crowds gathered outside of the hotel and the hospital and erupted; some broke windows and burned the buildings of businesses owned by whites. Hundreds of people were injured; six were killed. “If an outbreak of more than usual violence occurs, as in 1935 or in 1943,” Baldwin writes, “it is met with sorrow and surprise and rage . . . speeches are made, committees are set up, investigations ensue. Steps are taken to right the wrong, without, however, expanding or demolishing the ghetto.”
In the mid- to late sixties, uprisings flamed in Watts; Newark, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Detroit. The Kerner Commission Report, compiled by a panel appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, blamed the social unrest on aggressive, occupying police forces; deplorable housing conditions; and the misrepresentation of African Americans in the media.
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The Harlem of Claudine had endured an exodus of the middle class. In the film, abandoned buildings encroach on formerly glorious blocks, and only shards of glamour remain: Roop’s pale-yellow convertible in the early-morning light; the iron railings bordering a brownstone’s stoop; the king-size sleigh bed where Claudine snuggles with her daughters.
All six of the main character’s children are delicately drawn. The eldest, Charles (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), bristles with righteous outrage at the inhumanity of his family’s condition. “I know I ain’t nothing,” he says to his mother, “but I gotta share what I ain’t got?” By the film’s end, he has had a vasectomy to ensure he doesn’t find himself in a position similar to his mother’s. He joins a local militant group to organize for jobs. In a revealing encounter on their stoop, Claudine upbraids Charles, calling him a “snot-nosed coward.” But he is the family’s id, and also its conscience. Underneath his rage is an abiding love; an ocean of sorrow pools around his eyes. Whether to give in to the undertow of sadness, to the urgency of human need—for touch, for intimacy, for love—is the film’s chief conflict. Claudine’s oldest girl, Charlene, played with skill and precision by Tamu Blackwell, struggles with self-esteem and understanding the power of her own burgeoning sexuality.
The Social Security Act of the New Deal established Aid to Families with Dependent Children and was created mainly for widowed white mothers, who were not expected to participate in the labor force. Black women’s exclusion from the program was systematic: some states concocted “man in the house” rules that connected the sexual “morality” of the mother to her eligibility for support. Black women’s reproduction, long compromised and held hostage by the forces of American capitalism, became a lightning rod for the right. The myth of the “welfare queen”—popularized by Ronald Reagan beginning with his first presidential campaign, in 1976—defamed single mothers, insinuating that their children and sexuality were methods of scamming the taxpaying public.
“What keeps Claudine up at night is the question of whether to give in to her need for another human being.”
Claudine is aware of the stigma and defamation of Black family structures. Its carefully rendered characters stand in defiant, poetic opposition. In Carroll’s deft hands, Claudine is ambivalent about her own sexual power: ashamed of it, at times; at others, at its mercy. She is always aware that it belongs to her. What keeps her up at night is the question of whether to give in to her need for another human being. She’s perturbed by the surveillance of the state—here personified by the white social worker Miss Kabak, who tallies the family’s modest luxuries and takes note of Claudine’s growing romance with Roop.
The score, written by the Chicago-born Curtis Mayfield, adds another layer of detail and intimacy to the film, tracing the arc of the couple’s affair with the vocals of Gladys Knight acting as a voice-over, a sort of duet accompaniment for Carroll. Knight’s alto is honeyed, feminine, and knowing all at once; she’d been on a hit-making run with her band, and Mayfield had been certain he wanted a woman vocalist to sing Claudine’s story. (According to Mayfield’s biographers Travis Atria and Todd Mayfield—his son—his work on the film allowed him to “pay tribute to his mother’s struggles.”) The singer-songwriter was at his creative peak, and it was a golden age for the cinematic album: Isaac Hayes’s Shaft came out in 1971, Mayfield’s own Super Fly hit in 1972, and James Brown scored Black Caesar in 1973. Songs from Claudine such as the propulsive funk jam “On and On,” which was nominated for a Golden Globe, and the ebullient, midtempo “Make Yours a Happy Home” soar and swell with tenderness. In the latter song, Knight sings:
I wanna do you right
You love me out of sight
I wanna be what pleases you
So long as there is peace with you
That’s all I can do
Despite the treachery of the state, Claudine and Roop set about trying to make a happy home. At the end of the film, the couple, in their Sunday best, say their marriage vows before their children and neighbors. A nearby demonstration for jobs has gone awry; the police interrupt the ceremony to give chase to Charles, a leader of the protest. Without hesitating even to ask a question, the neighbors step in to ward off the intruders. When arrests are made, the entire blended family insists on going to the police station together. Claudine’s daughters learn from watching their mother that they are already whole. That what’s wrong is outside of them, not inside. That what’s wrong can be carried more easily, if not managed, if you deal with love, as Knight sings. “She had life in her, sex in her, and humor,” Diahann Carroll told Jet in 1974 about the reasons she loved and recognized Claudine from the moment she first read the script. I was looking for my mother in Claudine, not because something was missing but because it was a mirror, reminding me what I already had.