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Claudine Movie Essay Outline

CLAUDINE
BY JOHN BERRY

Third World Cinema, 1974

It has been well over a decade since welfare was a major political issue, regularly debated in public policy arenas and the media—and used as a wedge issue by Democrats and Republicans alike. But with an organized white mob movement called the Tea Party, who cloak a project of reasserting white national/global authority underneath a call for states’ rights and fiscal prudence, and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act coming up for re-authorization this year, we are bound to hear more rhetoric about welfare's validity and the need to forcibly compel more Black women into “appropriate” and “responsible” work, sexual, and reproductive behaviors.

This would be a great time to go back and watch the 1974 film Claudine, starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones and directed by formerly-blacklisted and exiled filmmaker John Berry. The film features music by Curtis Mayfield and Gladys Knight & the Pips, including the songs “On & On” and “Make Yours a Happy Home.” Carroll (who received an Oscar nomination in the Best Actress category for this film) plays the title character—a poor, unmarried Black woman in Harlem with six children, who (it is implied) do not have the same father. Claudine is on welfare and struggling to make ends meet when she meets Rupert (“Roop”), a sanitation worker played by Jones.

Though Claudine is on welfare, she works. She has to keep this hidden from her white social worker, Miss Kabak, who routinely makes “home visits” to police whether or not Claudine is breaking any of the rules that would mean a reduction or termination of her welfare checks. This includes searching for “luxury items” like a toaster or TV—and making sure the family’s food items and clothing don't look too rich. Miss Kabak also searches closets and the bathroom to make sure that there is no presence of a man—that is, someone able to provide more economic resources for the family, which would also jeopardize their welfare status.

So, Claudine not only has the pressure of raising her children with very little money, but also must contend with this policing and surveillance in the name of “social services” to control any sort of pleasure that she may have. Knowing this, Claudine and Roop initially make a decision not to marry, because the loss of welfare (even as they both work) would be too financially devastating to the household. Economics continue to plague the relationship and Roop becomes depressed, missing work and even skipping the Father's Day party that Claudine's previously-skeptical children throw for him. After some time, the couple eventually decide to marry at Claudine's home. In the film's final scene, Claudine's teenage son Charles (played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) is being chased by the cops—who follow him inside the house, disrupting the wedding. Roop and Claudine try to intervene. As the son is arrested, the family all jump into the police wagon to follow Charles.

Black aspirations

While the film’s narrative might be guided by some heterosexist and patriarchal assumptions, what is interesting is that it points out that even when poor and working-class Black people try to build heteronormative families or have such desires, they are still impeded by the state. The state shows up in multiple forms—like welfare, labor authorities, and the police. While police violence against Black men is often named as the primary mechanism of state violence and control of the Black community, Claudine also illustrates how “social services” function in much the same fashion for Black women. And even when they have desires to conform to the prescribed heterosexual family values, the state still tries to control the conditions under which that might occur—in some instances, perpetually undermining Black peoples’ ability to participate in that form of normalcy. I don't think Carroll or Jones are very convincing as Black working-class people; both come off as a little too upper-class to be believable. Their bourgeois affectations actually help reiterate the point that Black aspirations to respectability don't always take one out of poverty or lead to a person being treated with any less indignity by state entities or in one's job.

Just two years after this film premiered, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan painted the now-infamous portrait of Black women as scammers undermining the US economy. The so-called “welfare queen,” as Reagan put it, "has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under  each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000."

Twenty years after Reagan's famous “welfare queen” speech, President Bill Clinton made good on his election promise to “end welfare as we know it,” resulting in a reduction in the number of women who are able to access welfare, limiting the number of years one can receive benefits, and making work a compulsory requirement of the program.

Claudine is an important contribution to an understanding and critique of the welfare state—and is useful when considering the terms of what is likely to resurface as a debate this next election cycle.

Date Published: 

June 20, 2011

End credits contain a "Special Thanks" to the following organizations: Buddah Records; General Camera; General Stage 19; Movielab; Magno Sound, and Preview Theatre.
       As noted in various contemporary sources, including DV on 2 Aug 1973 and Box on 3 Sep 1973, Claudine was the first film produced by Third World Cinema. A Jun 1972 issue of Black World announced that Third World Cinema Corp. had negotiated a distribution deal with Twentieth Century-Fox. NYT , in its 23 Apr 1974 review, and LAT on 15 Sep 1973, reported that Third World Cinema was created by actors Diana Sands, Ossie Davis, James Earl Jones, Rita Moreno and producer Hannah Weinstein to provide minorities with substantial, less stereotypical roles in theatrical films. On 23 Aug 1973, a Jet news item reported that the company was started in 1971 by Ossie Davis to “train Black film technicians” and that its first film, Claudine , starring Diana Sands and James Earl Jones, hired twenty-three of its thirty-four member technical crew from the black community. Jet noted that this figure represented the largest number of black people employed by a “major” feature film to date.
       According to LAT , Third World Cinema also won a $400,000 grant from New York City's Manpower and Career Development Agency to establish an internship program that paid $80 a week for job training on set. Apprentices were able to satisfy union membership requirements by working with professionals, insuring the possibility of work on future productions, and many of the program's graduates found jobs on ...MoreLess

End credits contain a "Special Thanks" to the following organizations: Buddah Records; General Camera; General Stage 19; Movielab; Magno Sound, and Preview Theatre.
       As noted in various contemporary sources, including DV on 2 Aug 1973 and Box on 3 Sep 1973, Claudine was the first film produced by Third World Cinema. A Jun 1972 issue of Black World announced that Third World Cinema Corp. had negotiated a distribution deal with Twentieth Century-Fox. NYT , in its 23 Apr 1974 review, and LAT on 15 Sep 1973, reported that Third World Cinema was created by actors Diana Sands, Ossie Davis, James Earl Jones, Rita Moreno and producer Hannah Weinstein to provide minorities with substantial, less stereotypical roles in theatrical films. On 23 Aug 1973, a Jet news item reported that the company was started in 1971 by Ossie Davis to “train Black film technicians” and that its first film, Claudine , starring Diana Sands and James Earl Jones, hired twenty-three of its thirty-four member technical crew from the black community. Jet noted that this figure represented the largest number of black people employed by a “major” feature film to date.
       According to LAT , Third World Cinema also won a $400,000 grant from New York City's Manpower and Career Development Agency to establish an internship program that paid $80 a week for job training on set. Apprentices were able to satisfy union membership requirements by working with professionals, insuring the possibility of work on future productions, and many of the program's graduates found jobs on Claudine .
       As stated in Jet , Claudine was shot on location in Harlem, New York and on 23 Oct 1973, DV noted that principal photography had recently been completed in New York City.
       On 4 Oct 1973, Jet reported that Sands collapsed on set and was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Sands was given one month to live due to the severity of her disease and was replaced by Diahann Carroll. Jet stated that Ossie Davis was directing the film, but he is not credited onscreen.
       Third World Cinema Productions, Inc. produced only one other film, Greased Lightning (1977, see entry).
       As discussed in various contemporary sources, including NYT and the Var review on 10 Apr 1974, director John Berry marked his return to theatrical filmmaking in America with Claudine . Berry's participation in a 1950 documentary short, The Hollywood Ten , about the group of alleged Communist filmmakers who were imprisoned because of their refusal to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), resulted in his inclusion on a Hollywood studio blacklist. Unable to work in the United States, Berry fled to France and continued to direct films. He also directed stage productions in London, where he worked with Hannah Weinstein.
       The film was produced in association with Joyce Selznick and co-writer Tina Pine. Selznick, niece to producer David O. Selznick, was best known as a casting director. Selznick told DV on 15 Apr 1974 that she became involved with the film in 1970, when her friends, writers Tina and Lester Pine, pitched the story of a white woman dying of cancer who is seeking homes for her six fatherless children. According to Selznick, Diana Sands committed her talent to the project when the story was changed to a black woman dealing with welfare issues, but the picture was turned down by numerous studios, including Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros. and Cinemobile. She contended that Twentieth Century-Fox and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer showed interest in the project but were concerned about producing a “soft” black film. Claudine was picked up for distribution by Cinema Center Films, but the deal fell through when its parent company, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) decided against financing feature films. When Selznick ultimately negotiated with Third World Cinema, she and Pine agreed to let Weinstein produce. The film was made for $1.1 million.
       According to LAT on 8 Jun 1974, the film had risen to fifth place on the weekly list of top-grossing films in Var , just four weeks after hitting the chart.
Although Selznick and Pine were given “in association with” credits, the article reported that their participation in the production of the film was contested by its filmmakers. Weinstein told LAT that despite Selznick and Pine's claims, they had nothing to do with producing Claudine . Due to the success of Claudine , however, Selznick and Pine were contracted by Paramount Pictures to develop three new films, as well as a television sequel to Claudine that could be used as a series pilot.
       As reported in DV on 12 Dec 1974, Weinstein promoted the film for Academy Award consideration by screening it for a week, 20 Dec 1974 through 26 Dec 1974, on the cable television station Z Channel. DV noted that this was a “new approach” to Academy Award promotions and that Weinstein predicted that cable television would become “the great equalizer in future Oscar balloting.” Actress Diahann Carroll was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actress category.
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Black World

Jun 1972

p. 91.

Box Office

3 Sep 1973.

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Box Office

22 Apr 1974

p. 4682.

Daily Variety

15 Apr 1974

p. 5.

Daily Variety

2 Aug 1973.

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Daily Variety

23 Oct 1973.

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Daily Variety

5 Apr 1974

p. 3, 18.

Daily Variety

8 May 1974.

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Daily Variety

12 Dec 1974

p. 1, 15.

Hollywood Reporter

5 Apr 1974

p. 3, 22.

Los Angeles Times

15 Sep 1973

p. 7.

Los Angeles Times

12 May 1974

Calendar, p. 26.

Los Angeles Times

8 Jun 1974.

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Motion Picture Herald Product Digest

8 May 1974

p. 98.

New York Times

8 Jul 1973.

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New York Times

23 Apr 1974

p. 34.

New York Times

5 May 1974

p. 1, 8.

Newsweek

10 Jun 1974.

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Time

20 May 1974

pp. 66-68.

Variety

10 Apr 1974

p. 24.

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