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Claudine [Movie Review]

Summary

Claudine is a 1974 film starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones as Claudine and Rupert (aka Roop), two people living imperfect lives who meet and begin dating. Throughout the film, we see the progress of their romantic relationship and the difficulties of trying to make things work. It’s difficult enough for two people to begin and maintain a relationship so it’s only made more complex when children, welfare, and child support are added to the mix.

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Show Notes

The story revolves around Claudine, a Harlem woman in her 30s who is on welfare but has a job to help supplement her income. She makes the long commute by bus to the suburbs where she is a domestic worker for a White family. While at work one day she meets Roop, a garbage man who asks her out on a date. Throughout the film, we see the progress of their romantic relationship as well as the complexities of their lives which involve children, welfare, and child support. Claudine has six kids and receives welfare while Roop has two children and in a sense representing the male perspective, pays child support.

Roop decides to start chatting up Claudine on this particular day which leads to a bit of witty banter between the two of them. It turns out that Roop previously noticed Claudine and had been interested for a while but finally had the chance to speak to her on this day. From seeing her and their brief conversation, he’s able to quickly and accurately surmise that she’s on welfare but working this job off the books and not reporting the income to the welfare office. The reality is that she has an ice hockey lineup of kids and the money she receives from welfare is just not enough to support them. Likely, the money she makes from her job on the side wouldn’t be enough on its own either but the combination of the two provides a little more breathing room.

Before this scene, we get a glimpse into Claudine’s life as the film opens with her and the kids running down the street in Harlem as they start their day. She’s running to catch the bus to get to work in the suburbs while signing papers for the kids and checking over their stuff as they’re headed off to school. Claudine’s kids range from high school to preschool-aged and are evenly split by gender. Once on the bus, Claudine settles in with a group of other women who are also headed out to the suburbs for work.

The women are quite comfortable with each other and have likely become friends after seeing each other every morning during their commute. They crack jokes and banter about their lives, dating, intimate relations, etc. The family that Claudine works for seems nice enough but they’re her employers so the interaction is different. When she begins chatting with Roop, she seems a bit reserved at first but warms up to his banter and becomes a bit more relaxed. I like banter and dialogue that flows so the various fast-paced back and forth conversations throughout the film were amusing to me.

Initially, Claudine declines Roops’ invitation to go out on a date. During the conversation with her bus friends, Claudine states that she hasn’t been dating or even thinking about men because her life is so hectic given her responsibilities and past relationships that haven’t ended well. Roop questions her reason for turning him down, not in an aggressive or demanding manner but rather just trying to gain some understanding. When she expresses her concerns, Roop explains that her having children or whatever other complexities in her life are not a problem for him. With that reassurance, Claudine decides to take a chance and takes Roop up on his offer. She gives him her address and they make plans for him to pick her up and go out on a date.

Roop arrives at Claudine’s apartment as planned but she’s running a bit late and the kids aren’t expecting him. So Claudine’s daughter rightfully leaves him outside to wait. For the first date with someone whether man or woman on whom you have no Carfax (meaning nobody that you know, knows them, and can give you the rundown), you should pick a public place to meet. My personal phone number and email are unlisted at work and I see those people almost every day, much less giving my address to someone that I don’t even know.

To say that Claudine’s household is busy is an understatement. The kids are a ragtag bunch of a variety of ages and given the amount they’re just all over the place. But I liked the kids from the very beginning, they’ve all got their own personalities. The two youngest kids, Francis and Lurlene, are fairly quiet and very sweet. The two in the middle, Paul and Patrice, are a bit rough around the edges but you can tell that they’re quite smart. The two oldest kids, Charles and Charlene, are only teens but seemingly already a bit world-weary. From this very first interaction, you can tell that there’s gonna be some mess.

When Roop first arrived and knocked on the door, Patrice was the one that answered and sent him on his way. As the audience, we got somewhat of a glimpse into the household but now with Roop in the apartment, you get to see him witnessing this for the first time. Seven people are living in this relatively small apartment so there’s not a lot of personal space. Most of the kids have some kind of complaint or drama going on and Claudine is in the thick of it the moment she walks in the door.

Charles has taken over the bathroom for some quality alone time which leads to one of the other kids ear hustling and putting his business on blast. Charlene, the super pro-Black Sister Souljah daughter with an attitude and new boyfriend, turns off the TV which the younger kids are watching because Tarzan, a White man, is beating up Black people. The younger kids aren’t problematic, they’re just being kids and have a bunch of energy. All in all, there’s a bunch of noise, attitudes, snippy comments, whining, and other manners of activity. They’re not bad kids but there’s a lot of young energy and not nearly enough space in the apartment.

At first, none of the kids pay Roop any mind and even Claudine seems to forget about him for a moment. So he’s able to hang back for a few minutes and just observe the mayhem. Claudine has just endured a day at work and a long bus ride home but now has to deal with a house full of fussing kids. She is eventually able to reasonably corral the kids and get them under relative control.

Claudine tries to beg off from the date but Roop instead offers her the option to shower and get dressed at his place after which they can go out to dinner. We have to suspend reality here as in real life I would tell her not to go to this stranger’s house as she’d be risking being later found dead in some alley. But the kids finally taking notice of Roop are thinking along the same lines and begin asking questions. They launch an interrogation trying to figure out who this man is that’s trying to date their mother.

Sassy, mannish, or otherwise rude behavior is not cute when exhibited by anyone, including kids. But I don’t have a problem with kids asking questions or refusing to do something or otherwise blindly follow orders that make them uncomfortable. They’re not perfect but they have good common sense and I liked the honesty and openness of conversation between Claudine and the kids.

All of the kids’ earlier energy is now focused on asking Roop questions. They want to know who he is, how he knows their mother, where they’re going, and what they’re going to do. And instead of being put off by the kids’ directness, Roop instead seems rather amused. Claudine is sweet and affectionate towards the kids but she doesn’t coddle or talk down to them. She’s not encouraging them to become street kids but she’s also not raising them to be pushovers. Both Claudine and Roop speak to the kids as though they have some kind of sense which is pretty cool.

When Claudine arrives at Roop’s apartment he has a squatter/furry roommate. As expected, he does try to make a sexual advance on Claudine but she brushes him off. (In a different movie that could have gone a whole other direction.)

Instead of the nice dinner that Rupert told the kids he had planned for Claudine, they ended up having the fried chicken dinner that the kids assumed would take place. (I guess it was “fancy” because there was a bottle of wine?) Like I previously stated, this is someone that Claudine doesn’t know very well and going to his apartment to take a bath and get dressed of all things is certainly taking a risk that he might be a creep. While soaking in the tub, Claudine falls asleep and to be fair so does Roop. But he wakes up and goes into the bathroom presumably to check on her. Rather than quickly waking her up and leaving, he hangs around and she’s quite a bit caught off guard to awaken and find him staring and smiling at her. It’s a movie but in a different genre, this would have been a very serious situation.

Roop and Claudine end up talking about the realities of her life versus the assumptions that people make. Claudine has six children and collects $30 from welfare for each child for which she has to undergo questioning at the welfare office because of the belief that she’s trying to get rich off of the system. $180 in 1974 is about $1,020 in today’s money, not enough to make anyone rich and not enough to comfortably support a family of seven. In today’s money, that kind of income would put you in the range of poverty for a household of one person.

And as a woman with six children but no husband/boyfriend/father in the picture some might assume that Claudine was just randomly having kids all over the place. But she’d actually been married twice and some of the kids had been fathered by her husbands though the relationships just didn’t work out. It’s not explicitly stated but I got the sense that the fathers weren’t really in the picture. Meanwhile, Roop has two children but they live in a different state so he’s unable to see them regularly. Further complicating matters, there seems to be some tension with his children’s mother(s).

The two go back and forth talking about their kids and wonky situations. Given that they both have complicated situations it might not be the best choice for the two of them to be together. But it kind of works because they get each other better than other individuals who might have less drama.

Not passing judgment but here it is that Claudine already has six kids and the very first day she even speaks to Rufus let alone goes on a date with him, mere hours later they’re laid up in his bed. I’m not saying you should have a fixed timetable for dating or being intimate but rather that they both seem rather impulsive and things are moving quickly. On the one hand people back then sure liked to get married multiple times and it’s a movie so they can’t drag the courtship out.

The scene where Claudine returns home after her night out only to be interrogated by the kids is one of my favorites. They ask her all kinds of questions about why she’s coming in at that time in the morning. And the commentary among the kids about what happened on the date and her being their mom and too old to be intimate with someone was realistic and pure comedy. The kids were great in the scene as their timing was perfect.

But there’s an undercurrent with the older kids that they’ve seen this scene play out before which makes them skeptical about Roop. Claudine meets some new man and things are great in the beginning only for him to disappoint her by flaking out.

The kids don’t want to get their hopes up so when Roop later comes over to properly meet them, they attempt to ignore him ringing the doorbell. This continues even after he enters the apartment but he singles out each of the kids and tries to connect with them. Roop is quite comfortable with Claudine’s situation and seems to know the basic rundown of her situation without having to be told. Most likely as a result of having dated other women from the neighborhood. Instead of being put off by her kids, he recognizes the situation for what it is and doesn’t pass judgment.

It offers a peek into what the experience might have been like for some mothers on welfare, especially once Ms. Kabak shows up. She’s a caseworker from the welfare office who randomly stops by and just peeks and prods her way through the apartment. Her tendency to just pop up likely also played a role in the kid’s refusal to let Roop in earlier in the film. When Ms. Kabak arrives, they have a code for giving everyone in the house a heads up so they can squirrel away the few electronics and household goods that might raise questions.

These searches are incredibly invasive as Kabak can just show up and search around whenever she feels like it. Claudine is not getting a lot of money from the government and doesn’t seem unwilling to work. Rather it seems that her job will not pay her enough on its own to allow her to provide for her family. We know that she had two marriages that ended but it’s unclear if it was due to divorce or her exes dying. And either way she’s likely not getting much if any child support from the fathers of her children.

They’re not living a lifestyle of champagne dreams and caviar wishes on the government’s dime. This woman stopping by to look for toasters and ask questions about where she got the money for extra food just seemed so petty. It seems some nosy busybody has been paying attention to who’s coming and going from Claudine’s apartment and took notice of Roop coming by to visit which results in the social worker stopping by more frequently. It’s not exactly clear how much time has gone by but they’ve probably been dating for a few months by this point.

While forming his relationship with Claudine, Roop also makes an effort to bond with her kids. Claudine is doing the best she can but the kids need a bit more individualized attention. Roop interacts with them one-on-one and most, excluding maybe the youngest daughter, are dealing with an identity crisis or some degree of hopelessness.

The middle son, Paul, appears rather young, not even high school-aged but more like a preteen. Yet, he’s already shoplifting and cutting school to hang out on the streets where he plays craps with grown men from around the neighborhood. Roop gets involved and realizes that the kid is quite intelligent though very concerned with hustling and getting money. He’s headed down the wrong path and things would only get worse without any intervention. Paul’s preoccupation with getting money likely comes from seeing his mom struggling. Roop encourages Paul to forget about the street and instead go to school and focus on getting a proper education.

As the story progresses, Claudine, Roop, and most of the kids are starting to settle into a regular routine and are comfortable around each other. But the flow of the film is broken up by these random impromptu visits by Ms. Kabak. Each time she pops up Claudine and the kids have to scramble to put stuff away, which now includes some items that Roop has contributed to the household. The welfare rules give Ms. Kabak the right to nickel and dime the cost of anything above the basics that might be in the house and deduct those funds from the money Claudine receives.

When Ms. Kabak finds Roop in the apartment she begins asking Claudine all kinds of questions and him as well. Her concern is less about the welfare and wellbeing of the children and more about how to reduce the money provided to the family or if possible, get them completely off of welfare. With Roop now being in the picture, Ms. Kabak begins to push for him to shoulder more of the household’s financial responsibilities. She has no idea how long these two have been together or the stability of their relationship.

Given that she immediately pushed for Roop to begin providing for the family, I would assume that similar efforts had already been made to do the same with the children’s fathers but proved unsuccessful. Determined to continue seeing Claudine but not wanting to deal with the drama from the welfare office, Roop decides that he’s going to take on more financial responsibility for the kids. In time, that would be a reasonable expectation, especially if Roop marries Claudine or otherwise ends up moving into the home. But it seems like a bad idea to push a woman to immediately become financially dependent on a man that she’s only just begun dating.

The kids actually need more attention than they are getting and Claudine is doing what she can but is stretched a bit thin. The youngest son, Francis, wants to be invisible and then at a point stops speaking. Meanwhile, the oldest daughter, Charlene, is desperate for attention and is allowing herself to be led astray by some boy she’s dating. Just about every word out of her mouth is about this boy and what he thinks or said. Charles, the oldest boy is also struggling, he displays a bit of bravado but there’s a sense of hopelessness there as well. As the younger kids begin to warm to Roop, Charlene and Charles remain distant as though waiting for the other shoe to drop.

With things going well and Roop now being a positive and mostly welcome presence in their life, Claudine and the younger kids decide to have a Father’s Day party for him. And as often happens in life, right when things are going great something occurs to throw you off track. Roop is caught off guard by a substantial increase in his child support payments and his paycheck being garnished to the point that he will likely have financial difficulties.

It’s a movie so you have to suspend reality to a degree but one can’t help but wonder if Ms. Kabak might not have passed along her finding that Roop was now seeing Claudine. How that works, I can’t say but I can’t otherwise figure out how that increase occurs at this particular moment. That’s not to say that Roop shouldn’t be providing for his kids as they are his responsibility. But if he hasn’t gotten a raise or some other increase in earnings, what would be the reason for his child support increasing? I assumed that Roop was planning to marry Claudine and with them living together the money that he had been paying for his apartment would go towards their shared household.

We don’t get much background on the details of Claudine’s and Roop’s past relationships. While we know that Roop has two kids who live in another state, it’s unclear if he sees them infrequently because of the distance or because of some issue with their mom(s). Because he is a man who is working and living on his own without any dependents, he doesn’t have many if any options for seeking out financial assistance. The government offers assistance for children, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities or medical needs but in most cases, not able-bodied men.

After attempting to offer Claudine assistance, he now finds himself in financial problems which throws him into a downward spiral. Before he was a jolly happy-go-lucky guy with morals and principles. And now in the midst of his frustration, he breaks down and goes from anger to incredible sadness. Buckling under the pressure and not wanting to face the kids or Claudine, he instead chooses not to show up to the party. He legitimately had things going on in his life but should have had the decency to call and tell them he wasn’t coming.

Not showing up disappoints the kids as he’d won most of them over and it seemed like even Charles might have been starting to come around. Never mind Claudine, she has feelings and would be hurt but is an adult. Yet, to enter these kids’ lives and make them promises of being there only to leave the picture the moment things get difficult is not cool. Whether Roop just needed to step away for a moment and figure things out or wanted to step away forever, he owed it to the kids to tell them. To do otherwise was just cowardly.

It’s a movie but if he ever came around again I’d be concerned that he would just pick up and leave again the next time he faced some difficulty. You shouldn’t feel the need to choose between being the hero or nothing at all. It’s perfectly acceptable to be human and vulnerable at some point between those two extremes. Neither Claudine nor the kids are interested in him for his money so there’s no reason to feel as though he should no longer come around.

Charles is involved with a community activism organization that’s at least focused in part on getting people jobs that pay a liveable wage. The girls and Claudine miss Roop but it’s telling that all three of the boys make an effort to seek him out and bring him back. He’s not perfect but the kids recognize that they need him not just as a positive male role model but also to have some degree of hope for their futures. They have a rather negative outlook on life and he had begun the process of turning that around.

Losing hope, Charles decides to cut his losses and get a vasectomy so as not to be like the other men with whom he’s come into contact. From the outset and reliably throughout the movie, Charles held out that Roop was going to eventually let everyone down. During a conversation with Claudine, he expresses his frustration at having seen this situation play out between Claudine and men on multiple occasions. He’s seen these men come along and say all the right things but eventually, they all abandon her, sometimes leaving a new mouth to feed behind.

From the outset, another pregnancy and even fewer resources to go around had been a concern for the kids. But Roop calmed their fears and promised to be different. In a sense, he was because he seemed so genuine which made the heartbreak of his sudden absence even more hurtful.

Charles recognizes that Claudine is hurt but doesn’t think she deserves any sympathy as he’d warned her against getting her hopes up once again. Claudine is hurt for herself but also for the kids because she can see how much of an impact the collapse of this relationship is having on them. Charles rubs salt in her wounds by pretty much saying I told you so.

He has so much going on but because of the number of children, Claudine isn’t able to consistently give them the amount of individual attention that they really need. Charles is struggling inside and his feelings of desperation push him to take steps to ensure that he doesn’t have children who will suffer in the world. Claudine recognizes and laments that Charles has grown so tired of the world beating down on him and attempting to emasculate him that he’s taken steps to destroy perceived aspects of his own manhood before the world gets a chance.

For lack of a better term, this is a nasty conversation to take part between a mother and son because the things he says to her while true to a degree are intended to be hurtful. As the parting coup de grâce, Charles suggests that Claudine spend less time moping about Roop and take a closer look at Charlene as she’s heading down the same path. This time the potential additional mouth to feed isn’t being carried by Claudine but rather Charlene.

Charlene’s lack of self-identity and desire to be down led to her following behind this boy like some naive lovesick puppy which has now resulted in a pregnancy. Previously, Claudine had caught Charlene sneaking in the house after breaking curfew to go drinking with this boy. (How old is this guy if he’s able to buy liquor in a bar?) Charlene then spent the night tasting that liquor the second time around and while Claudine issued a warning trying to talk sense into the girl, she comforted her and also gathered the other girls into her bed where she cuddled with them.

Claudine tried to warn her then by letting Charlene know that while she’s her mom and now older (though only 30-something) she has lived and knows the kind of game a young man might be trying to run. Don’t fall for the okie doke because Claudine has been there. Having kids at such an age where you’re unprepared and so is the father is a recipe for making your life difficult. Now faced with the reality of Charlene being pregnant, Claudine is angry and disappointed because she’s lived her life and wanted something different for Charlene. I understood Claudine’s reaction but it was still wrong, didn’t help the situation, and was likely part of why Charlene didn’t tell her that she thought she might be pregnant.

Things were going so well but when they started to fall apart it was like a domino effect. Claudine was dealing with the lady from the welfare office then Roop. The kids as a group as well as their individual needs and drama combined with just the day-to-day of their survival. Now your teen daughter is about to have a baby and your eldest son has taken steps in hopes of never having one. It’s a lot.

During an earlier conversation, Charles asked Claudine why she even gave birth to him. He felt that she should have just killed him before he was born. If the only option was being born into this struggle and hardship, he would have preferred to have not been born. Throughout the movie, Claudine acknowledges the difficulty of raising these kids on her own but also stresses the point that they’re her kids, and she loves them. Regardless of how they came to be or whatever the situation, she doesn’t regret having any of them. She just wishes her living circumstances were different. Charles asking her that question catches her off guard because it is not in line with how she views herself or her children.

It’s perfectly valid for people to decide to wait and try to have kids later in life or not at all. But Charles making what at the time was likely a permanent decision at such a young age wasn’t a good idea. (I would also question what doctor would perform such a procedure without his parent’s knowledge or consent as he is seemingly underage.) He’s like the flipside of Charlene. They’ve made these very important decisions at such a young age without fully considering what it will mean for their futures.

Claudine is a really great movie that I picked up on DVD years ago and have watched several times since then. I knew nothing about the movie and mostly checked it out because I liked the fanciness of Diahann Carroll and love the Gladys Knight & The Pips version of “The Makings of You”. Curtis Mayfield created the movie’s soundtrack and might have also done its score (I’m less sure on that point), both of which are incredible.

I like female celebrities and tv/movie characters that are very well put together. I mostly knew Diahann Carroll from reruns as Whitley’s mom on A Different World and that seemed to be primarily the types of roles she portrayed. The role of Claudine, a “welfare mom” from Harlem, was quite a departure for her as she’d played the notable role of Julia in the 1960s which was rather pivotal.

There was initial concern that Carroll might not be able to pull off the role as she was known as a well-dressed, well-tailored woman who was always decked out in designer clothes. Yet she landed the role and played an important part in what turned out to be a pretty interesting movie. There are several comedic moments as well as some campy over-the-top drama but it all came together to make a pretty good movie.

The film is entertaining but manages to touch on some astute points about the reality of poor people, poor Black women, in particular, being on welfare. It also gives a glimpse into the other side of that perspective. Not excusing men who selfishly abandon their children but rather those who are trying to do the best that they can with regards to providing for their kids but having some difficulty in that regard.

It’s a movie that I’ve enjoyed watching time and time again. The reason I picked it for Women’s History Month is that Diahann Carroll stars in the movie and she’s made fairly significant contributions to the history of Black entertainment. And also because the subject matter touches on intersectionality and poverty. I don’t support the glamorization or normalization of struggling. Yet, we shouldn’t shy away from telling the stories of people whose lives aren’t perfect as they also need representation.

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