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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The forgotten 1970s romantic comedy that raged against our broken, racist system

The forgotten 1970s romantic comedy that raged against our broken, racist system

Graphic: Libby McGuire, Photo: LMPC via Getty Images
When Romance Met ComedyWhen Romance Met ComedyWith When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.

The 1970s are a hallowed time in film history. As the classic studio system gave way to the rebellious innovations of New Hollywood, young independent filmmakers brought a newfound cynical grit to the screen. Even the defining romantic comedy voice of the era, Woody Allen, was a pessimistic auteur. Yet as Ann Hornaday argues in a recent Washington Post article, what makes the 1970s a great decade for filmmaking isn’t just canonized hits like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and Annie Hall—it’s the diversity of films that emerged in an era when Hollywood was rewriting the rulebook for what audiences wanted. Some of the most fascinating films of the decade are ones that have all but faded from public memory. Like Claudine, a 1974 love story that rages against racism, social inequality, and broken governmental systems.

Released during the height of the blaxploitation movement, Claudine was a pointed attempt to do something different. The film centers on 36-year-old single mom Claudine Price (Diahann Carroll) as she falls for suave garbage collector Rupert “Roop” Marshall (James Earl Jones). Claudine’s all-Black ensemble is filled with characters who are well-aware that their lives fit some sort of cultural stereotype—a single mom with six kids on welfare, a “stud” who doesn’t see his own children, a pregnant teenager, a radical activist. But Claudine humanizes those archetypes into richly developed people. The film paints an affectionate portrait of family life on the edges of poverty in Harlem. And it offers the kind of big screen Black love story that wouldn’t become a regular part of the rom-com canon until the 1990s.

The groundbreaking elements of Claudine were very much intentional. It was the debut feature for Third World Cinema Corporation, an independent production studio founded by Black and Latinx artists like Ossie Davis and Rita Moreno. The studio’s goal was to tell three-dimensional stories about people of color while serving as a training ground for behind-the-scenes talent. On Claudine, 28 of 37 production jobs were filled by Black or Latinx creatives, although the top roles went to two white, Jewish creators. Claudine was produced by Third World Cinema co-founder Hannah Weinstein, a journalist, left-wing political activist, and TV producer. It also marked the Hollywood return of director John Berry, who’d been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and gone into self-exile in France during the 1950s and ’60s.

Screenwriters Lester and Tina Pine specifically wanted to use Claudine to highlight the broken welfare system. As their son Daniel Pine explained in a 2018 retrospective, “At that time, the welfare system was a mess. On the one hand, recipients, mostly single mothers, were ineligible for benefits if they worked outside the home. On the other hand, most available jobs paid less than a living wage. My parents wondered how poor women on welfare managed to survive under such conditions… This was the premise of Claudine.”

To get by, Claudine hides the fact that she works as a maid in the suburbs, a job that supplements her welfare payments and food stamps but hardly leads to a life of luxury. Her family of seven lives in a small four-bedroom apartment where squabbles over the TV, the toaster, and the single bathroom are a daily occurrence. Claudine technically “cheats” the welfare system, including during repeated comedic sequences in which she and her kids switch out new appliances for older ones before their social worker stops by for a check-in. Yet the film’s larger point is that welfare is so stingy, its oversight so dehumanizing, and these “infractions” so minor, that the problem is clearly with the system itself, not with the people trying to survive within it.

As Claudine puts it, “If I can’t feed my kids, it’s child neglect. If I go out and get myself a little job on the side, if I do not tell him, then I’m cheating. If I stay at home, then I’m lazy. You can’t win.” Claudine smartly parallels Claudine’s minor rule violations with the way her white boss tries to sneak unsanctioned building material into his local trash collection. We all bend official rules in some way or another, but only some of us are scrutinized and demonized for it.

The role of Claudine was originally intended for Diana Sands, a Tony- and Emmy-nominated actor who co-founded Third World Cinema and helped shepherd the film through development. But when Sands became fatally ill with cancer at just 39, she insisted that her childhood friend Diahann Carroll take the part instead. At that point Carroll was best known for another portrait of Black single motherhood, the 1968 sitcom Julia, in which she played an elegant, upright widow and nurse.

Julia was a groundbreaking series. It was the first TV show to star a Black woman as someone other than a servant and made Carroll the first Black woman to be nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress at the Emmys. Yet the show also received pushback for depicting Black life through a lens largely designed to appeal to white audiences, something Ashley Ray-Harris explores in her wonderful piece on Black TV history. As Carroll explained in a 1975 interview with Jet magazine, “I came out of a certain era and most of the Black performers who came out of that same era have to pay a price today for striving for a kind of acceptability that I think the Black community wanted us to strive for 20 years ago.”

Claudine gave Carroll a chance to show off a different, less glamorous side of herself as a performer. Claudine is a wonderfully nuanced rom-com heroine, one who’s granted both great dignity and fascinating flaws. The film opens with its frazzled leading lady hastily signing school forms and kissing her kids goodbye as she dashes for the bus to work. An original soundtrack composed by Curtis Mayfield and performed by Gladys Knight & The Pips provides a vibrant soundscape for the carefully managed chaos of Claudine’s hectic life. While single parents are relatively common in romantic comedies, Claudine is the rare rom-com to center on truly working-class characters.

Claudine explains that what tires her out about being a parent isn’t the work, “It is the worrying all the time—the shitty neighborhood and the shitty school and the shitty world.” And as a single woman in her mid-30s, she’s also torn between prioritizing her children’s happiness and finding time to look out for her own as well. The fact that Roop approaches life with a jovial, carefree attitude leads to the push-pull of whether he and Claudine are right or wrong for each other.

Plenty of romantic comedies center on the rush of young love. By contrast, Claudine and Roop are mature enough (and tired enough) to skip past the fake pleasantries of early courtship. When their plans for a perfect first date go awry, they happily settle for an evening of takeout and a dish soap bubble bath instead. They’re practical people, and they carve out their own romanticism within that.

Much of the joy of Claudine is in watching Roop ingratiate himself with Claudine’s skeptical family. The whole young cast is wonderful, and James Earl Jones—a theater-trained actor then fresh off an Oscar nomination for The Great White Hope—brings a great mix of “cool cat” mischievousness and paternal gravitas. Roop helps one of Claudine’s sons feel less invisible and allows another to realize that his gambling skills can translate to classroom mathematics. Claudine has a keen eye for the dynamics of a big family, like the way the youngest child still gets special privileges as “the baby” long after she’s outgrown the moniker.

In fact, Claudine could’ve easily coasted along as a sit-comish story about working-class love, but the film complicates those pleasures with its biting look at the welfare system. The high stakes of starting a serious relationship get even higher when they involve government oversight. A scene where Claudine and Roop try to figure out how getting married would impact her welfare status rivals Terry Gilliam’s Brazil for its satirical sendup of ineffectual bureaucratic systems. And as social worker Miss Kabak, Elisa Loti perfectly captures the patronizing edge of a white woman who keeps positioning herself as Claudine’s friend in order to police every detail of her private life.

Claudine argues that America’s socioeconomic system is set up to dehumanize those who are poor, those who are Black, and especially those who are both. That reality creates a simmering resentment among its characters, who each respond to the weight of injustice in their own way. Claudine’s teenage daughter Charlene (a wonderfully naturalistic Tamu Blackwell) rebels in her personal life, while her oldest son, Charles (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), turns to radical politics. “I just want to be free,” he explains of his work with a Black activist group pushing for social and economic reform. “I want to be able to feel like a real human being. I want to be able to just breathe.”

For as much as it’s rooted in the specifics of the 1970s, there’s so much about Claudine that feels remarkably prescient today. It doesn’t suggest that love (or life) is easy, but it’s not unhopeful either. In place of a simplistic happy ending, Claudine closes on a note of joyful communal defiance in the face of oppression. Yet even though it earned strong reviews, made a decent showing at the box office, and garnered an Oscar nomination for Carroll, Claudine soon faded from the public consciousness. Rather than kicking off a trend of diverse romantic comedies that touched on vital social issues, the movie stands as something of an anomaly in the genre.

The same can be said for Third World Cinema, which announced an ambitious slate of films but went on to produce just two more projects: the 1977 NASCAR biopic Greased Lightning (starring Richard Pryor) and a 1980 PBS documentary about artist Romare Bearden. Third World Cinema was forced to cease production when the urban improvement grants that helped fund it dried up. It would take decades before its pioneering diversity efforts became mainstream in Hollywood.

Third World Cinema and Claudine are early pillars in the long-standing fight for more representation, both on screen and off. While Claudine has been hard to track down in recent years, it’s getting a prestigious Criterion Collection Blu-ray release this October, which will hopefully lead to renewed interest. It’s a worthy addition to the exalted canon of 1970s cinema, and a welcome example of the kinds of compelling, diverse human stories the romantic comedy genre can tell when its creators are willing to think outside the box.

Next time: His Girl Friday redefined the screwball comedy at 240 words per minute.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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