Long Live the Welfare Queen? A Critical Analysis of John Berry’s Film Claudine

Photo Credit: IMDb

Photo Credit: IMDb

The film that I am analyzing this week is Claudine (1974), starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones. The film’s director John Berry, who directed more than 30 films in his lifetime, was not only savvy behind the camera, but also served as a writer, actor and producer on various projects. Berry, who is of Polish/Romanian descent, has directed films with notable Black actors like Dorothy Dandridge in Tamango (1958), and Danny Glover and Angela Basset in Boesman and Lena (2000), which he was editing at the time of his death in Paris on November 29, 1999. Although Berry was a white director, he was able to convey themes particularly relevant to Black women in lower-socioeconomic circumstances in the 70s, along with the mis-en-scene, cinematography and sound.

Diahann Carroll plays the main character Claudine, a single mother of six children, who works as a maid for white families to make ends meet. Claudine meets a Black garbage man named Roop and a relationship starts to bud. She is hesitant about falling in love and resists his initial attempts to woo her with bubble baths and fine dining. During the course of the film, the audience sees the difficulties Claudine faces with her love life, the welfare office, intrusive social workers and keeping her children in line.

One of the recurring core themes that I saw in 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 not extra source of income. For example, when the social working is walking up the stoop, Claudine and her children rush to switch the new iron, kettle, and toaster with the old appliances.

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Source: Third World Cinema

The film addressed a conundrum that 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.

I think that the film also addresses how out of touch the white middle-class female social workers were with the harsh realities faced by single Black mothers. For example, 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. I 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. I feel like 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.

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The soundtrack for Claudine was written and produced by Curtis Mayfield, and sung by Gladys Knight & the Pips. In fact, the group’s album for the film was called Claudine. The soundtrack was a hit on the Billboard Hot 100, and Curtis Mayfield received a Best Original Song Golden Globe Nomination for the song “On and On.” I think that the song “Welfare Man” spoke a great deal to Claudine’s situation. The song “Welfare Man” comes on when Claudine is hiding Roop’s gifts as the social worker is enters the room. The song has an upbeat tempo, while the lyrics reflect the struggles of a Black woman who is stereotyped as a lazy, unfit mother and doesn’t want to deal with Mr. Welfare. I think that Mr. Welfare is a personified version of the judgmental welfare system, and he is also a representation of Claudine’s lover. For example, a verse in the song says,

Holding me back, using your tact, to make me live against my will, (hard sacrifice) If that’s how it goes child, I don’t know, I can’t concede my life’s for real. It’s like a private eye for the FBI, just as envious as the Klu Klux Klan. Though I’m of pleasant fate it’s hard to relate, I’ll do the very best I can Ooh, so keep away from me, ooh ooh Mr. Welfare (Mayfield).

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Photo Credit: Unlimitedmoviestreaming.com

In the film, the social worker keeps a tab on Claudine’s visitors, and even has someone from the neighborhood act as an informant to let her know what’s happening when she is not around. The social worker says that a man has been coming to see Claudine. Claudine suspects that the nosy woman from across the street has probably been an insider, or “private eye,” sharing details about her life with the social worker. This also relates to the mis-en-scene, because in a city like Harlem a great deal of people are sitting on the stoops and gossiping or spying on people’s business in the community. The film also had a song called “To Be Invisible.” Claudine’s youngest son would reiterate his desire to be invisible and disappear. He even starts to use a mini board to speak to his siblings toward the end of the film. This behavior probably resulted from feelings of inadequacy. In general, I think that the film’s sounds matched what you would hear in Harlem, especially with the honking cars outside in the street.

I think that the resistance Claudine shows Mr. Welfare Man can correlate to her romantic relationship with Roop. The song has another verse that says:

Oooh, It’s a hard sacrifice. No no no no, Lordy. Mr. Welfare, Stay away Mr. Welfare I’m so tired, I’m so tired of trying to prove my equal rights. Though I’ve made some mistakes for goodness sakes, why should they help mess up my life? (Mayfield)

In the movie, Roop continues his attempts to woo Claudine, but she is constantly worried about keeping her children out of trouble. Claudine is physically weary from being a working single mother, and she is emotionally weary from explaining to others that she is not a bad person for having six children. When Claudine starts going out with Roop, her children tell her don’t come home pregnant because they don’t need more children in the house. Also, Roop’s garbage man friend warns him that if the social worker finds out he’s seeing Claudine then he’s going to be the welfare man. Roop is hesitant about the thought of ever being on welfare or dependent on the government. Hence, the lyrics reflects her struggle to support her family on one paycheck, and find a man that will accept her lifestyle and not burden her about the six children, two marriages, and two almost marriages.

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The mis-en-scene in Claudine captures the sights, clothing, and styles of the 70s. Since the film is set in Harlem, you can see that the neighborhood has worn-down brownstones. In the film, you can see the traffic congestion when the younger sons are swerving in between cars on a bicycle. In terms of clothing, Diahann Carroll wears button down shirts with colorful floral designs, and she appears to have shoulder-length permed or straightened hair. Claudine’s four room apartment is crowded and there is barely enough room for the children or guests to move around.

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Source: Spot Television

The apartment décor includes a technicolor Jimmy Hendrix poster on the wall, which indicates that this film was set in the 70s. In addition, Claudine looks for Charles at the W.E.B. DuBois Community Center. The center’s wall décor includes paintings of prominent Black figures like Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X and Langston Hughes. You can see signs that say things like “Black Youth 407 Unemployed” and “Jobs, Welfare.” The setting aligns with the events that were occurring during the Black Power movement in the late 60s and early 70s. The signs and protests about the lack jobs and fair employment for Black gives the viewer a sense of how high the unemployment rate was for Blacks during the 1973-1975 recession.

In terms of cinematography, I thought that the characters were well lit, and they did not blend into the background. For example, the walls of Roop’s apartment are a light pink color, Claudine’s place has a beige/pale yellow color on the wall, and the bathroom is a bright red. If the walls were painted a darker color, you wouldn’t be able to easily separate their hair and skin tone from the background. I could also see the time elapse in different scenes. When Roop picks Claudine up for their first date, you can tell that it’s around dusk because the light is not too bright outside. On his work shifts, you can tell it’s fairly hot outside because he is sweating while taking out the trash.

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Source: Third World Cinema

The film had wide and tight camera angles, depending on the mood of the scene. For example, the opening scene is a zoomed out shot of Claudine walking down a busy street with her children. You see the hustle and bustle of a New York City street, and Claudine is in the background trying to sign forms and send her kids off to school before running to catch the bus for work. The camera shots gets tighter when the cinematographer wants to show intense emotion, like when Claudine is in bed with Roop or scolding her children. For example, when Roop says that he will never leave Claudine and they will go down to welfare to work it out, she lovingly pulls Roop’s head close to her chest. The camera gets a zoomed in shot of Roop’s face looking uneasy. I think his facial expression indicates that he was nervous about going down to the welfare office and possibly being labeled as a welfare man. The welfare man label, and the thought of having the government constantly keep track of your income and possessions may have felt emasculating for Roop.

I think that the Claudine had recurring images that challenged the idea of Black masculinity. For Roop, the idea of marrying Claudine and possibly applying for welfare was maddening. When Claudine asks if Roop will be there for her, he replies “don’t try to put me on welfare.” Roop said that the welfare people would cut his balls off and she’d hate his guts. After Claudine says that she puts up with it, Roop replies that she has to put up with it because she is a woman, and she is the one who has six children. I found it troubling that Roop spoke to her as if she chose to raise six children without a man, and their fathers played no role in her current living conditions.

I feel like money has deep ties to masculinity for Roop. For example, Roop’s pent up emotions from a court letter stating that he is willfully neglecting his kids and a pay cut, leads him to breaking down. The jovial, humorous and sometimes sarcastic Roop can no longer wear a mask or hold back tears because he feels like he failed at his manly duties. Typically, you rarely see men, let alone Black men, cry because they are taught to be tough and don’t show any emotions. I think the director showed a Black man crying to reveal that they are human beings who feel and aren’t immune to pain.

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Source: Third World Cinema

In Charle’s case, he goes as far as getting a vasectomy. He tells his mother “manhood is not between the legs.” I think that Charles meant that having children does not make you a man. In his mind, if you are a poor man who has children, and you can’t even take care of them, you are doing more of a disservice to them. He did not want to procreate and end up in his mother’s destitute situation. Charles also says to Claudine that if she loved him she would have killed him when he was born, like Black women did back in the days of slavery. The abject poverty, rejection, and lack of a male figure in his life, hardened him to the thought of ever having offspring. Toward the end of the film, Charles is the one who plays a role in bringing Roop back into Claudine’s life after confronting him in a bar. He is able to recognize what makes his mother happy, as opposed to blaming Claudine for all the misfortune in her life.

I think that each of Claudine’s children fit common character types seen in Black film. For example, Charles was the revolutionary son who wants to challenge white supremacy and fight for social justice. Charlene was a promiscuous Black teenage girl from a single parent household who grew up without a father, drank, partied and had a teen pregnancy. Claudine’s middle son had a knack for gambling, and he believes that the only people who you see with money are pimps and number runners. But, I like how the writers inserted Roop into this seemingly problematic scenario, and had him tell the boy that he is skillful mathematician who needs to stay in school.

I thought that Diahnn Carroll did a superb job as Claudine. She received a “Best Actress” nomination for her role in Claudine. James Earl Jones also did a great job playing Roop. I couldn’t imagine another actor showing the complex nuances of fatherhood and manhood. Both Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones were nominated for Best Motion Picture Actress/Actor in a Musical/Comedy. In addition, they both won an Image Award for Outstanding Actress/Actor in a Motion Picture. Lastly, the film was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen. I think that Charles, who was played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, should have received some type of award for his performance. The screenplay was written by Tina and Lester Pine.

Claudine is a film that touches upon a great number of issues that are still prevelant in the Black community. I think the film showed the backstory behind the so-called “welfare queen,” and debunked the notion that Black women are burdens on society. At the time, the negative imagery of single Black mothers, and absent Black fathers, was overwhelming in the media, and I think John Berry poignantly countered these perceptions.

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Source: IMDb

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