Saturday, January 21, 2006

Picked Flick #65: Claudine

Praising American movies of the 1970s is like praising British literature of the 1920s. Who but the sourest contrarian could possibly dissent? What would be the point? And yet, the most familiar versions of that decade's litany of crown jewels—Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show, the Godfathers, Mean Streets, The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, The Conversation, The Parallax View, Nashville, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Taxi Driver, Network, All the President's Men, The Deer Hunter, Days of Heaven, Apocalypse Now—surely are a white and boy-clubby lot. (Surprise!) All the more reason why I wish that John Berry's funny and lusty and pertly political Claudine were more widely celebrated. Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, both of them instantly addictive, are cast as a sort of Loren and Mastroianni of the Harlem walk-ups. She's a housemaid and he's a trash-collector, but unlike the steaming heaps of movies where these roles would go utterly unquestioned for African-American actors, even major stars like Carroll and Jones, Claudine is all about how poverty, even where it's pervasive, denaturalizes life—though I rush to add, this is not some kind of abstruse thesis or clinician's pronouncement. Claudine is bawdily, turbulently down in the trenches, palpably at home in closet-sized kitchens and shit jobs and impossible day-to-day predicaments, against which the film and the characters push with spitfire aplomb.

The first shot of the film finds Claudine and her bumptious brood crossing a street, an image that will repeat at the film's conclusion with only one major change, which is either momentous or negligible depending on whether you favor a personal or a structural view of the film—an impossible choice, everywhere precluded. Claudine and Roop meet at work, though he works for the city and she for a family, and so nothing happening between them is happening on their own turf. Work keeps her from arriving on time to their first date, which begins in her own home, where she has to hide appliances and amenities from the surveilling eye of the Welfare Office case worker, who hears about Roop from Claudine's neighbors, whom we never meet because she never has any time to interact with them, because she's off working the job that the case worker also mustn't discover, in order to feed the kids who phone her incessantly on her first night in Roop's bedroom, which is no less permeable to espionage and intrusion than Claudine's bustling pad. Claudine doesn't keep this all in balance so much as she bends and flexes impressively to hit back as many of the balls as she can, and just as impressively throws her racket and stomps her foot when she knows she's losing a set. Meanwhile, she can't get away from her kids when she wants to but also can't find them when she wants to. Her eldest son Charles is absorbing himself in militant youth politics that the film ribs without dismissing. He swears that if Claudine really loved him, she would have killed him, in the manner of murderously protective slave mothers about whom he has heard, and yet his garbled, comically judgmental anger stems from evident and ubiquitous sources. Her eldest daughter Charlene all but draws knives on Roop when he comes a'courting, but later finds herself tearfully defending the achievements and battered honor of black men, when her unplanned pregnancy riles Claudine to majestic, literally violent fury ("I guess it's a shame you didn't get knocked up by Frederick Douglass!"). The film switches tones and registers on a dime, over and over and over again. Its candor in matters social, sexual, and political, just like its expressively bright color palette, is like an icy splash of river water, even though the film is as inveterately urban as a Spike Lee joint, and defiantly proud of its own dirt.

James Earl Jones upends his typical typecasting with his cheeky, sexy turn, and the juvenile cast is one of the best I've ever seen, especially Tamu Blackwell as Charlene. But of course it's Carroll who reigns over this movie, cocking her brows and lashing her tongue against a world of statutory double-standards and black comedy (pun intended). She's a tornado of sweetness and ire, craving romance and reliable help in equal doses, aghast that her own children view her 36 years as the thick of senior-citizenry. The magic of her performance, and of the film, is that with each new scene, as a new and specific hurdle tosses itself into Claudine's path, we see some new facet of this woman's resilience, sometimes ornery and sometimes humorous, and none of them bear the face of cliché. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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