During the 1970’s, the blaxploitation genre rose to prominence with films like Shaft (1971), Black Caesar (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), establishing new stars and drawing in considerable box office. However, there were some filmmakers who felt that the black experience wasn’t really given the faithful representation it deserved; enter Claudine, a film that made the effort to go beyond the blaxploitation genre and offer a realistic portrayal of black life, especially the family unit. Previously released on DVD by Fox, Criterion has licensed the film for its Blu-ray debut.
The Production: 4.5/5
Claudine Price (Diahann Carroll) is a single mother raising six children on a combination of welfare and the meager wages she earns as a housekeeper working for a upper middle class family. While working one day, she comes across gregarious garbage collector Rupert “Roop” Marshall (James Earl Jones) and the two start dating. However, the relationship is tested by the chilly reception of the children, the welfare system, their own poverty, and the problems of Claudine’s two oldest children. Yet, she and Roop manage to find some happiness amidst the rough and tumble world they live in.
Claudine is a breath of fresh air in 1970’s filmmaking, with a strong emphasis on family drama and lighthearted comedy. The film is particularly notable for its mostly realistic portrayal of the family unit and the community of the ghetto; it’s neither too upbeat or too gloomy. Also, Tina and Lester Pine’s script works in elements of social conscience issues – like welfare and black identity – with a deft blend of sly comedy that doesn’t feel too heavy handed or preachy; it works brilliantly with the overall tone. Finally, the love that’s shown between the main characters and family members is both genuine and powerful; it never tips over into saccharine sentiment or melodramatic stereotypes. With a great cast, script, direction by John Berry and a sunny and soulful soundtrack, Claudine is one of the great hidden gems of the 1970’s that’s ripe for rediscovery in this era of social reckoning.
After making history as the first Black woman to lead a TV sitcom in a non-stereotypical role (Julia, from 1968-1971), Diahann Carroll give a tour de force performance in the titular role; she earned a well deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actress. As the cheery if rough around the edges Roop, James Earl Jones gives one of his more notable – if somewhat overlooked – performances; those of us more familiar with him as the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films or Mufasa in The Lion King (1994) will be pleasantly surprised with his performance here. Among the children here, one of the two standouts here include Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as Charles, who’s both resistant to his mother’s relationship with Roop and a bit embarrassed by his living in poverty; Tamu Blackwell is the other standout as Charlene, who seems to have fallen into the same trap that Claudine has early in her life. Rounding out the cast here include David Kruger, Yvette Curtis, Eric Jones and Socorro Stephens as Claudine’s other 4 children, Elisa Loti as the social worker Miss Kabak, Roxie Roker (just a year before going on a long run on television as Helen Willis in The Jeffersons) as a coworker of Miss Kabak, Stefan Gierasch as Roop’s superior at his sanitation job, and an uncredited Ivan Dixon as a guest of the wedding at the end of the movie.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio for this release, taken from a brand new 4K digital restoration. Film grain is organic throughout, with the color palette and fine details represented faithfully; there’s little to no problems like scratches, dirt, dust or tears present. By far this is the best the movie has ever looked on home video, easily surpassing the full screen Fox DVD.
The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a PCM track for this release. Dialogue is strong and clear, with sound effects and the soulful Curtis Mayfield score (performed by Gladys Knight and the Pips) both given equally faithful representations as well; there’s very little to no cases of distortion, crackling, popping or hissing present here. Again, this is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video and another improvement over the Fox DVD.
Special Features: 3.5/5
Commentary with actors Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, filmmaker George Tillman Jr. and Dan Pine, son of screenwriters Lester & Tina Pine – Carried over from the Fox DVD, the cast share their memories of the film and their feelings about their characters with Tillman and Pine chipping in their observations as well.
Robert Townsend on Claudine (30:56) – In this newly filmed conversation, the actor/filmmaker and film programmer Ashley Clark talk about the movie and its significance, with Townsend sharing why he considers this one of his favorite movies.
1974 AFI Master Seminar featuring Carroll (21:57) – Accompanied with illustrations and stills, Carroll talks about her career and a little bit on the making of the movie.
Uncovering John Berry (19:54) – Newly filmed for this release, film critic Imogen Sara Smith examines the life and career of the film’s director and why he has fallen into obscurity despite his ties to several major figures in filmmaking.
Foldout featuring an essay by critic Danielle A. Jackson
A success with both critics and audiences, Claudine is a social conscience drama with comedic touches that’s all heart and soul. Criterion has done a tremendous job rescuing the movie from obscurity with a great HD transfer and a nice slate of special features. Highly recommended and an easy upgrade from the Fox DVD.
Amazon.com: Claudine (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]: Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs, Tamu Blackwell, David Kruger, Yvette Curtis, Eric Jones, Socorro Stephens, Adam Wade, Roxie Roker, John Berry: Movies & TV
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