Flipping through channels late last Saturday night I ran across James Earl Jones as a garbage man, a VERY young James Earl Jones. My interest was piqued so I gave the obscure late-late night movie a try. I’m happy to report Claudine turned out to be great example about social perspectives of the African-American community and its lifestyle. Claudine is not a movie you watch for the camera, this film you watch for the social commentary. The director John Berry creatively brings your attention to a tragic reality wrapped up in an American comedy-drama, romantic story. His use of comedy is clever. With humor he is able to report a very sad reality taking place with our poor.
In summary Claudine Price (Diahann Carroll) is a single black mother who receives welfare benefits that are crucial to her family staying alive; albeit she is secretly working as a house keeper for an upper-class white family it is a daily struggle keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads. She endures daily an exhausting commute from her slum-shabby apartment in Harlem to the pristine suburbs. While working in this carefully tended white community she meets the charismatic, irresponsible, garbage collector Roop (James Earl Jones). Romance quickly ensues, but Claudine has doubts that their relationship is good for her six children. Rupert (AKA Roop) wins out and convinces her love is the answer, however despite his good nature, he is reluctant to take on the role of fatherhood. Just when it seems as though there is a marriage in the offing Jones runs off. Claudine’s kids hunt him down and shame him into returning to their mother.
Berry illustrates three social themes that deserve reflection still today. Theme #1 is the relationship between welfare and employment. Claudine receives financial aid from the state welfare that hardly provides enough money for the basic needs to survive. She augments her income with her maid job, but she has to keep this concealed from the social worker. Her meager benefits will be reduced if the state finds out she has a job. Without the state aid Claudine is unable to provide for 7 people in a slum-like neighborhood. Throughout the whole film we watch again and again Claudine’s battle against living in poverty and telling the truth about her entire source of income. Deep down she wants to be honest.
Theme #2 is the relationship between welfare and marriage. This relationship is really challenging, you see Claudine is forced to choose between benefits for her families survival she desperately needs vs. her desire to marry Roop. This is when you learn Claudine is not a single mother by choice as much as she is by necessity. Rules of the government financial aid programs such as Aid to Families With Department Children (AFDC) are difficult to be in compliance with. Clearly marrying a kind man who will bring stability and love to her family vs. fear of benefit reduction is ridiculous. Welcome to government logic. In addition to the previous idea is another aspect that needs to be explored that is the typical stereotype “Welfare Queen”. This is an image of a young, African-American woman who is lazy and promiscuous, who also has several children by several different men—not true in Claudine’s case. Berry is making the point Claudine’s case might be more the reality as opposed to the perception the Welfare Queen is the real persona. Claudine is neither lazy, nor promiscuous. She is however trapped by a Catch-22 government created.
The 3rd theme is the view of Welfare and the African Community as a whole. Berry dances with this topic sometimes with comedy and sometimes with serious notes of reality. This concept is a constant topic of conversation from beginning to end. We are aware of the ‘character’ Welfare as if the agency is a live actor in the film. Welfare is so important that even Claudine’s children understand its impact in their lives and how much harder it would be to lose it. I think welfare is best seen through the eyes of Charles (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) Claudine’s eldest son who is a member of an activist group. They promote social justice for the African-American community. This is the only subject Roop and Charles agree about, they hate the welfare system. Charles’ ideals are questioned as he sees the position his mother is in and the loop she is stuck in struggling to break free of poverty and dependency. Charles advocates change can come from better and more opportunities for African-Americans in the job place. His vision is African-Americans can earn their way to financial independence. Charles believes the overall system encourages passivity and discourages self-reliance. Roop also takes pride in the fact he pays for everything in is life with his pay check, no social aid.
I really enjoyed the movie. I found myself reflecting politically about yesterday vs. today with movements such as Black Lives Matter and One. The camera in Claudine is the eye of the fight for social change. As elections creep up you might want to look at a movie such as this and think “Are things different? Are things better?” Might help you make the decision come poll time.