Saturday, August 17, 2019

Claudine (John Berry, 1974)

For a mainstream (ish) romantic comedy, John Berry’s Claudine is remarkably short on sustained exuberance or joy; it’s suffused with the weight of getting by, the near-impossibility of making all the pieces add up. The movie’s early stages tease us with the prospect of a black story conducted in the margins of a white society, with Claudine’s employer looking on as she flirts with the ebullient garbage collector Roop. But welfare workers and cops aside, that’s as prominent as whiteness ever gets in the mix: from then on we’re embedded in black rhythms and attitudes and concerns, to an extent that still feels fresh and daring. She’s a single mother of six kids, getting by only by juggling those government handouts with off-the-books domestic work, living in a state of constant look-out for the unannounced visits that may bring the edifice crashing down. The movie presents it as a virtual social inevitability that a woman like Claudine will often be in the situation she’s in, and that a man like Roop will often be responsible for leaving women and kids elsewhere in parallel situations, but also understands why they’d still jump in again (it carries a discreet but unmissably raw sexual charge): the characters understand the cycle and pay a price for it, but can’t countenance the amazing radicalism of Claudine’s oldest son, who goes out and gets a preemptive vasectomy (an act that Claudine perceives as yielding power to the white man). The movie adheres to its genre to the extent that it culminates in a marriage, but the vows are barely spoken when turmoil and violence bursts in, leading to a very unusual end-credits image of familial unity. Diahnne Carroll wonderfully comveys both bone-tiredness and the spark that keeps her going, and James Earl Jones as Roop has seldom displayed such contrasting relish and vulnerability.

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