Claudine (1974): John Berry’s Black-Themed Serio Comedy, Starring Diahann Carroll in Oscar-Nominated Performance

This serio comedy about a black welfare mother of six, Claudine Rice, her trouble with her brood, and her courtship by a garbage man, is only one notch above TV sitcom, mostly due to the winning performances of the two appealing leads, Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones.

The movie represented a breath of fresh air in the mid-1970s, arguably the worst decade for American actresses, particularly women of color. It was released amidst a cycle of blaxploitation movies about cops, pimps, and studs, offering a look at the lives of ordinary black people–their struggles, defeats, disappointments, and hopes.

Claudine is an attractive young-middle age black mother, abandoned by her latest husband to take care of six kids by herself. Her children range from a militant 18-year-old son down to a toddler, and include a teenage girl who becomes pregnant.

Claudine is poor, but there is no crime, or heavy drinking or drug-use in her family. She proudly takes the bus everyday to Riverdale, where she works as a housekeeper for a white couple.

The children, who are the results of two marriages and two consensual unions, are wild and funny but decidedly not brats.

With six children and no husband, Claudine must go on welfare. But to give the family a life above subsistence level, she must also work as a maid, which is against the rules. The movie offers a mild critique of a socio-economic system that invites cheating; lying is built-in. hence, we get to see the serio-comic aspects of the frantic activity of hiding toasters, steam irons, rugs, etc. whenever welfare worker comes to call.

Not neglecting the romantic angle, “Claudine” is also a love story between the protagonist and Roop, a proud, big-talking garbage man. who has himself been married twice. As a couple, they represent independent, resourceful, stubborn yet charming people.

As directed by John Berry, the movie takes family life seriously, though in style, it veers too much toward a typical TV sit-com. Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones may be too distinctive and glamorous to be convincing as ordinary people, But a good deal of the film’s problems might derive from the pedestrian screenplay by Tina and Lester Pine,

Both accomplished and likable, Carroll and Jones lend a measure of believability and gravitas to a narrative that’s a mishmash of situations and events, walking a fine line between realistic problems and serio commentary and sweet-spirited and playful interactions.

The central romantic bond is the strongest suit of this ultimately hopeful and high-spirited movie, navigating between sad and funny moments, harsh and tender events.

Greeted with largely positive reviews, the independently made film was a commercial success, grossing about $6 million at the box-office, or $3 million in rentals.


Distributed by Fox

Third World Cinema Productions, in Associations with Joyce Selznick and Tina Pine.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Best Actress: Diahann Carroll

Oscar Context:

The Best Actress winner was another actress, albeit white, who played a single mom, and of the same age (35), Ellen Burstyn in Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”