Black Pride is a positive affirmation to our community. It reminds us that we descend from royalty, coming from Kings and Queens. Black Pride was relevant during both the Civil Rights Movement and Black Arts Movement as a way to let us know that we have a rich history and culture; one that cannot be eradicated. Black Arts Movement was a popular time during the 1960’s and the 1970’s when we established and created our own opportunities. We had our own voice and the films created during this time were reminiscent of our unique creativity and cultural identity. One particular film that stood out during the Black Arts Movement era was “Claudine.” Claudine is a 1974 film that accurately conveyed life of a single mother trying to make ends meet. Claudine, played by actress Diahann Carroll, was the protagonist that struggled with supporting herself and her six children in Harlem by working as a maid for a wealthy family. Claudine crossed paths with a charming garbage collector named Roop, who was portrayed by James Earl Jones. He then becomes smitten with the sight of the attractive, aesthetically pleasing single mother, however he faces his own string of obstacles through the film. His storyline focuses on his life’s setbacks which makes Roop ponderous in his decision to
consider her invitation of a lifetime of love, happiness and security. Claudine is also the first African-American film that is non-blaxploitational. (Explain what that means and where the erm came from in 1-2 sentences). The film also stands out as being the first non-blaxploitational mainstream black film to be made during the Black Arts Movement. Claudine and the Black Arts Movement touches on three points: The founding of the movement, the Blaxploitation film era and the story structure of Claudine.
The movie is significantly tied with the Black Arts Movement. The Central theme of the film is “equality.” During the Black Arts Movement, African-Americans fought for racial equality through means of both word and song. Claudine was a film that not only showcased mediums of Black love, Black Unity, and Black Pride, but it also dropped knowledge that it was the post-period of the Civil Rights Movement and Black people deserved better especially when it came to fair working conditions and better wage standards. Through the lens of Claudine’s life, she was a maid that had no formal education or previous job training. Life proved to be a downhill struggle when she was collecting welfare assistance and secretly working as a maid for a wealthy family. There is a moment, close to the ending of the movie where Charles and a group of Black activists who protest not only racial equality and justice, but also protest for better working conditions for the African-American community. Black voices came together in unison to fight the system’s oppression to bridge the wage gap and end the cycle of welfare assistance.
First, the founding of the black arts movement was important to know how more progressed as a people we have come. The Black Arts Movement chronicled Claudine’s subliminal message of the film as it fought tirelessly to end systemic racism and end the vicious cycle of government assistance. According to an article by Hanna Foster (2014), “The Black Arts Movement was the name given to a group of politically motivated and determined black poets,
artists, dramatists, musicians and writers who emerged in the wake of the Black Power Movement.” In addition, Foster (2014) states from the reading is poet, “Imamu Amiri Baraka” is widely considered to be the father of the Black Arts Movement, which began in 1965 and ended in 1975. For the 10-year period of the movement, it was like it was a re-creation of the Harlem Renaissance but with a new name and a new meaning. It was simply the Harlem Renaissance revamped. One last point that Foster (2014) gives on the formation of the Black Arts Movement is the “Creative works of the movement were often profound and innovative. It also often alienated both black and mainstream culture with their raw shock value which often embraced violence. In the beginning, some of the most prominent works, no matter if was public speech, song or any other medium, were labelled and viewed as racist, homophobic, anti-semitic and sexist. Many of works put forth a black hyper masculine image in response to historical humiliation and degradation of African-American men but usually at the expense of some black female voices.”
Bianca Bailey (2020) notes, back in 1965, “Amiri Baraka sought to create a movement that celebrated a revolutionary aesthetic, shaped black culture, and advanced societal transformation. The Black Arts Movement (BAM) was ushered in with the assassination of Malcolm X and Baraka’s call to action with the poem, “Black Art.” Black artists produced works that celebrated blackness, proclaimed black revolution and nationalism, and gave hope for a new day. Although scholars mark 1975-76 as the end of the movement, BAM has gone on to influence the works of thousands of black artists including Tupac Shakur and Kendrick Lamar.”
Second, Blaxploitation films were the core of the African-American audience of the 1970’s. Blaxploitation films were our way of life. It was our message; our free speech. It gave us our own platform. It was a way for us to separate ourselves from the negative mainstream media
world and tell our stories unapologetically. According to an article written by Aaron Haughton from Viddy-Well (2018), he defines “Blaxploitation” as a “Genre subset of exploitation cinema, which is fundamentally comprised of independently produced, low-budget B-movies or grindhouse films.” The era of Blaxploitation films initially revolved around lewd, violent or taboo subject matter and are engineered specifically to attract an audience through sensational controversy.
Blaxploitation films gave us a chance to be the leads of our films. It gave us a chance to breakaway and tell a variety of stories through different means. Though Blaxploitation had issues dealing with taboo subjects, violence, indecency, it still gave us a voice in a new era that we were unable to speak from once before. During this time, it opened new doors for Black actors and actresses to play roles other than slaves and or maids. Haughton (2018) elaborates further that “Black actors in lead roles are typically centered on African-Americans overcoming oppressive, antagonistic and generally white authority figures, referred to none other than “The Man.” Claudine, however broke ground as the first non-blaxploitational, mainstream film that still had inserts of black stereotypes such as Jezebel, Welfare Queen and the angry Black woman.
Haughton (2018) fleshes out that “Protagonists in Blaxploitation films were outlined as stereotypical, typecast characterizations ranging from pimps, pushers, prostitutes and or bounty hunters, but at their core, promoted a message of black empowerment.”
The Claudine soundtrack was curated by the late Curtis Mayfield. He was the one who gave the soundtrack a solid meaning during the socially conscious time through the Black Arts period. From various sources, the “Claudine” soundtrack was one that was underrated and overlooked, because it was considered subpar to a handful of music critics. Curtis Mayfield was an artistic genius who made soundtracks not only to discuss Black urban life, but to talk about
the positive aspects of the black community. From a Souls of Black Voices blog article, author Sheldon Taylor (2019) points out that “Soul Singer Gladys Knight and Curtis Mayfield’s artistic integrities were unmatched for the film’s soundtrack. Their music abilities and capabilities were a music hi to lo mix that was a match made in heaven. Mayfield’s voice was one that registered just above a whisper but the composition he wrote spoke volumes. Gladys Knight and the Pips music simplicity was powered by gritty lead vocals and flashy showmanship.”
One of my favorite songs from the Claudine soundtrack is “Mr. Welfare Man.” It is a song in which it references cutting all ties with being on welfare. The song’s lyrics spells out Claudine being in distress with being hemmed in to government assistance. In the movie, Claudine had recurring conversations with Roop about breaking free and being financially independent, ending her relationship with welfare assistance. “Mr. Welfare Man” highlights Claudine confidently wanting to live a free life, financially, without having to deal with the burdens from receiving government aid. It was even stated in the first ten minutes of the film, in which Claudine and Roop first met, he wanted to know if she was on welfare. He wanted to know since she was working for a wealthy family, if she was “cheating.” Claudine’s facial expression and silence proved him right. She knew there was no way out, because living life as a Black man or woman in America is hard and worry some. From underlying assumptions on Claudine’s character on being a maid, she had no choice but to be “cheating”. She was one that, again, had no formal education and had slim work experience, so she found her own means to provide for herself and her six kids. The moment she wanted to move forward from welfare, she knew that she could not do so. She knew internally that the aid put a hex on her financially and that she had no other options to turn to. She goes as far as wanting to sacrifice ending welfare aid for herself and focus solely on receiving funds for her six children, so she would not be viewed
as a deadbeat parent. Claudine’s main obstacle in her personal life is to find a better way financially to support herself and her kids without having to be a cliché or a stereotype.
Taylor (2019) elaborates a piece of the song, that “Mayfield masterfully condenses public assistance’s complexities. With each verse, Gladys Knight switches from one emotion to the next. Through the first part of the song, her tonality was straightforward, honest and true, but as it reached the second-half of the song, she switched gears to get her point across to break the chains from welfare aid. Taylor (2019) also notes from the article, ‘A lyric taken from “Mr.
Welfare Man” collectively sums up the suffering, strife, and struggle of receiving welfare assistance. One of the lyrics from the song that Knight sang galvanized fans was to always never give up and know better opportunities are soon to come. One of the lyrics she vividly states expresses Knight’s roller coaster emotion is “I know I’ve made mistakes/for goodness sakes/ why should they mess up my life?” Taylor (2019) further acknowledges that Knight is “Seething one moment and then defiant the next. She basically lobs lyrical bombs that holds a candle to Mayfield’s musical artistry.”
According to Naty D. (2015), her analysis of the film was that of the” ‘welfare queen,’ or Black people cheating the government to get more welfare money. The term welfare queen became popular in the 70s, especially during Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign, where he repeatedly told the story of a “Chicago welfare queen” who lived off of taxpayer dollars, had multiple husbands, aliases, addresses, and Social Security cards. In the film, whenever the social worker comes around, Claudine and the children have to hide any appliances or furniture that look new. In order to receive the welfare checks, it has to appear as if Claudine is not working and has no extra source of income. For example, when the social worker is
walking up the stoop, Claudine and her children rush to switch the new iron, kettle, and toaster with the old appliances.”
Moreover Naty D. (2015) deconstructs the film as a film that addressed the conundrums that dealt a great deal of Black men and women encounter with the welfare system. If you have a job or make a certain amount of money, however minuscule, and fail to report it to the government then your welfare check will be deducted or you will be accused of fraud. In one scene, Claudine says, “If I don’t feed my kids, it’s child neglect. If I go out and get a job, and make a little money on the side, then that’s cheating. I stay at home and I’m lazy. I can’t win.” The money one makes at his or her job may barely put food on the table, but it counts as a strike against them in the welfare office. The double-edged sword arises when a Black man or woman does not work and society labels them as “lazy” or “irresponsible” when the government essentially puts them in a corner.
What Naty D. (2015) summarizes of Claudine is how the film addresses how out of touch the white middle-class female social workers were with the harsh realities faced by single Black mothers. For instance, the social worker in Claudine dresses fairly well and she has a “Mrs.” title. She is adamant about Claudine admitting to receiving help from a man. Any viewer could tell that the social worker was not in tune with Claudine’s struggles when she counted the 6 pack of beers and soda from Roop as a $2.15 deduction. Viewers and critics alike felt this film addressed the stereotypes that Black women in the ‘70s faced, whether it was being lazy, poor, sexually promiscuous or always scamming the government.
Last, Diahann Carroll was an extraordinary, talented actress who opened doors for Black actors and actresses to pursue careers in the entertainment field. She was a trailblazer who defied all odds and sought to break barriers in the entertainment industry. Carroll, a New-York City
based actress, has been active in the entertainment business since 1955 up until her passing in 2019, since she graduated from New York University with her Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology. “Claudine” put Diahann Carroll on a new pedestal in the acting world. She broke barriers as being the first black female lead in her own TV show entitled “Julia” back in 1968, but Claudine was a memorable role that put her to the top. She made history as being the first black actress to have starred in a film role that was non-blaxploitational. How she connected to the film was her character was based off a former neighbor as she grew up in The Bronx. Actress Diana Sands, who played “Beneatha” in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1961 film “A Raisin in the Sun” was originally cast as “Claudine”. She and Diahann Carroll were good friends in show business. As Diana Sands was dying from cancer, she insisted the role of “Claudine” go to Diahann Carroll. According to an article by Chrissy Iley (2008), the iconic film “Claudine” Carroll further on the market. The accolade that put Diahann Carroll on a new horizon in the business was an Oscar nomination. During the second to the last year of the Black Arts Movement period, it gave her the accolade of 1974 Academy award nominee for “Best Actress.”
One of the main characters from Claudine, Charles, was portrayed by actor Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs who also had notable roles in “Cooley High” (1975), “Roots” (1977) and “The Jacksons: An American Dream” (1992). He plays one of the main characters, who is Claudine’s first-born child and the oldest of six siblings. He portrays the role of a black revolutionary of Harlem. Charles is an active member of a black arts activist group who fights for positive social change for the black community. Charles is someone who is tired of falling victim to the system of systemic racism. Based off his actions and moody emotions for embracing change, she in her defense believes he is crazy as is the rest of his family. They even insinuate in their opinion he has a mental illness because of his rollercoaster feelings. He is a black activist group member
who embodies what it means to be apart of the Black Arts era. He even quotes from the movie, “Sometimes I just feel like crying for no reason.” He mentions that quote because he knows the system is unfair and unjust. The inequality he receives as a black man wreaks havoc on his emotional well-being. He wants to see a better change and no one could not fight for it better than our people. The last seven minutes of the film, he and the activist group that he is affiliated with make the first move for progress. They protest and speak out against issues such as racial inequality, the wage gap and better working conditions, which as a result causes political unrest in the Harlem neighborhood which abruptly aborts Claudine and Roop’s wedding in the end of the movie. In one particular scene, he also mentioned, “I don’t know why you didn’t kill me when I was born. I don’t know why you didn’t kill me like those women did their kids back on those plantations.” He said that because he sees what the welfare has done to Claudine and how it has impacted him and the rest of his five siblings. Charles said that in hopes of Claudine could have had a better life.
A few scenes later, after dealing with welfare and the negative impact it places on the entire Price family, Charles makes a permanent, irreversible decision that is considered a grave mistake in which Claudine is unable to fathom. Charles gets a vasectomy. He made his own executive decision to go forth with this so he doesn’t end up like his mother. He did it so it would put a stop to generational cycle of pain and strife. During the Black Arts era when the Black community was pushing for change and progress, Charles made it his business to end the generational curse of being put on welfare. Claudine, still trying to accept the fact that her son made a grave mistake by getting this procedure, she educates him on the choice he has made.
She tells him that he made a mistake for his operation because that is what “The Man” wants all Black men to do. During slavery, men were sold away from their families which broke up the
family structure of black families. Black families were important in earlier times so that the black race could continue. Claudine was flustered from the aftermath of Charles “slight” operation because he fell in the trap of satisfying “The Man’s” notion that black families shouldn’t exist.
She was also frantic with not only of Charles not only giving up the chance for black fatherhood but also black manhood. Claudine felt that during a time like the Black Arts period, where Black people that were coming in a new positive light, she was disappointed that Charles subscribed to “The man’s” ideologies of emasculating him.
At the conclusion of the film, though it showed Charles and Roop getting arrested because of political unrest, Charles does accept Roop as his new stepfather. After dealing with welfare issues, racial disparities, and jacked working conditions Charles is accepting of Roop and the positive impact he will bring to the family.
In conclusion, Claudine, the Blaxploitation era and the Black Arts Movement have made a significant contribution to the American culture. It is deeply rooted in American society. As I prepare for graduate studies for the Master of Arts of African-American Studies program, I am prepared to work towards my master’s thesis in the Black Arts Movement and the impact it has in the 21st century. From the founding of the Black Arts Movement to the Blaxploitation film era to the film structure of Claudine, all these three points are intertwined when discussing a new age of black pride, black unity and love. The way the Black Arts Movement has shaped modern times is through hip-hop culture. Hip Hop artists such as NWA, Public Enemy, Tupac Shakur, and Kendrick Lamar have all used their art and platform to talk about issues like police brutality, racial inequality, urban family life dynamic and job structure. Their influence from the movement ties back to the arts movement from 1965 to 1975.
Bailey, Bianca Christian. “We Gon’ Be Alright: The Black Arts Movement’s Survival Through Hip-Hop”. Proquest. May 2020
D. Naty. “Long Live the Welfare Queen? A Critical Analysis of John Berry’s Film Claudine”.
The Afro Voice. 30 July 2015. https://theafrovoice.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/long-live-the- welfare-queen-a-critical-analysis-of-john-berrys-film-claudine/. Accessed on 25 November 2020.
Foster, Hanna. “The Black Arts Movement (1965-1975)”. Blackpast. 21 Mar. 2014. https:// www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/black-arts-movement-1965-1975/. Accessed 22 November 2020.
Haughton, Aaron. “The History of Blaxploitation Cinema.” Viddy Well. 25 January 2018. https://viddy-well.com/articles/the-history-of-blaxploitation-cinema. Accessed 24 November 2020.
Iley, Chrissy. “I’m ambitious, dedicated and vain.” The Guardian. 4 Nov. 2008. https://theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/nov/05/women-television-film-oscar. Accessed 23
Taylor, Sheldon. “Many Moods of Mayfield: The Claudine Soundtrack’s Understated Greatness.” Souls of Black Notes. 6 October 2019. https://soulsofblacknotes.blogspot.com/2019/10/many-moods-of-mayfield-claudine.html?m=1. Accessed 24 November 2020.