By Melissa Houghton
Would we exist without mothers? That’s rhetorical. Real and fictional mothers- love, support, protect, nurture, provide for, shape and inspire us. But let’s not take mothers for granted; they also have needs and want some of the same things they selflessly give to their families and others. To all the moms, mom-dads, and dad-moms too, Happy Mother’s Day.
The year before we had Norman Lear’s The Jeffersons on the small screen, on the big screen, African-Americans had very few role models to look to for inspiration, much less validation of their right to exist and live prosperous lives. Their stories were framed by others who had not walked in their shoes; yet, wrote stories with not so subtle messages and cliché opinions. Before the double-income, well-to-do nuclear family Huxtables in the 80s, in the early 70s, African-Americans were portrayed mostly as domestics, laborers, militants, still sat at the back of the bus, watched Tarzan reruns on television, used dish detergent for bubble bath, and lived in apartments infested with mice and roaches. It was rare to see a successful Black nuclear family let alone a woman in the lead role.
In Claudine (1974), the family role model is a housekeeper who is cheating on the welfare system, and who reluctantly starts dating a so-called deadbeat dad working as a garbage collector. Sadly, the narrative implies all African-American men don’t pay child support, have their wages garnished, and don’t see their children; and, African-American women have lots of children, head fatherless households, and take advantage of the public dole to live glamourous lives as stay-at-home moms at the expense of taxpayers. The movie was marketed as a romantic-comedy. I digress, there is a bright side to the film.
I watched Claudine this past January on an obscure TV station in Park City, Utah. I was surprised the programmer dug this up, it seemed like a random movie on the guide, but it caught my attention, nonetheless. It was a favourite movie I’d watched growing up, it fascinated me because I got to see African-Americans on television (I didn’t see it in a theatre), a beautiful Black woman in a title role, and ultimately watch a sweet story about the life of a single mom who manages to find love again.
Claudine Price (Diahann Carroll) was married twice and had her first child at 18. Claudine supplements welfare payments and to care for her six kids works as a housekeeper. She’s doing this to survive; she receives $30 per child on welfare. Claudine rushes to catch the bus each day traveling from Harlem to Riverdale, for some extra pocket money which she still has to declare to social services.
Claudine is exhausted after long days with demanding bosses, then heads home to a cramped apartment to fend for two rebellious teenagers and four young children. The older kids take care of their younger siblings in her absence but fight, scream, play and are jockeying for Claudine’s attention – she has no time for herself.
Despite not having a man in the home, Claudine is reluctant to date, but a charming garbage collector manages to convince her to give him a chance to take her out on a date. Claudine breaks down and reluctantly accepts his offer; she invites Roop Marshall (James Earl Jones) to meet her family. Her kids are very skeptical of him, his intentions toward their mother, and ridicule him for working as a garbage man. They don’t understand that Claudine needs a life outside of being mom. They don’t want a new dad or to compete for their mom’s limited attention. They’ve established a family structure that albeit chaotic, they would prefer to stick to. Naturally, early on in her blossoming relationship with Roop, her kids protest and cause Claudine to doubt it’s worth it to change her life. What’s love and companionship worth anyway, at her ripe age of 36. Claudine is suddenly conflicted: she wants to be with Roop, but when she’s with him she can’t stop thinking about her kids, when she’s at home all she can do is think about him and how he makes her happy. Roop tries to be a father figure to her children and get to know each one as an individual and treat them within his means. They don’t want him to hurt their mom, so they keep a careful watch on Roop, and secretly enjoy this new father-figure they each, want but are perhaps afraid will slip away over time.
As a mother, Claudine allows her kids to speak up, she listens to them, while still being firm when necessary. She encourages them to be independent thinkers and warns them not repeat some of her mistakes.
As a woman, Claudine finds love again with Roop. There’s not a phony word or action between them, and there’s a lovely dignity Claudine exudes as her love for Roop grows. Claudine and Roop understand each other, know where they come from, can push each other’s buttons, but still come back to meet each other somewhere in between. There’s a warmth and quiet bond they share, despite a few differences and hiccups as they grow together in a mature relationship. It’s a special moment when they decide to get married and work together to raise her children and make the most of what they have; joining forces and taking another shot at love in middle-age.
There weren’t many Black actresses in leading roles in the 70s and none as luminous as Diahann Carroll. As Claudine, she is warm, laid back, sexy and soulful. Carroll was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for the role.
I was thinking about doing a few honourable moms mentions, but I’m giving it all to Claudine as my pick for badass mom.
Trivia: Claudine’s neighbourhood still exists and her apartment building at 139 Edgecombe Avenue is now gentrified.
Childhood memories of sitting with hushed audiences in dark theatres – before, during and sometimes after a shocking conclusion, shaped Melissa’s love of movies. Her passion for film spans many genres and go-to’s are Indies, Sci-fi and Costume dramas. An image of Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Ladyexplains her life-long love of hats. Melissa works in marketing by day. She feels the arts saved her life and is a devoted year-round and festival volunteer for several arts and cultural organizations. She’s been a Toronto International Film Festival volunteer since 2003. Melissa recently fulfilled a wish to join the Sundance Film Festival volunteer roster and has a desire to meet Robert Redford. Melissa will be returning to Sundance for her fifth straight year in 2019. During this Sundance working-vacation, Melissa volunteers on the Artist Relations Box Office team as Box Office Associate. Melissa’s desert island picks are Alien, The Godfather, The Witches of Eastwick, Little Miss Sunshine and My Fair Lady. Melissa’s focus will be independent films. By the way, she has not met Robert Redford, yet.