Diahann Carroll is radiant in an unforgettable, Oscar-nominated performance as Claudine, a strong-willed single mother, raising six kids in Harlem, whose budding relationship with a gregarious garbage collector (an equally fantastic James Earl Jones) is stressed by the difficulty of getting by in an oppressive system. As directed by the formerly blacklisted leftist filmmaker John Berry, this romantic comedy with a social conscience deftly balances warm humor with a serious look at the myriad issues—from cycles of poverty to the indignities of the welfare system—that shape its characters’ realities. The result is an empathetic chronicle of both Black working-class struggle and Black joy, a bittersweet, bighearted celebration of family and community set to a sunny soul soundtrack composed by Curtis Mayfield and performed by Gladys Knight & the Pips.
Previously released in a lackluster DVD edition by Fox nearly two decades ago (in full frame, too!), The Criterion Collection presents John Berry’s Claudine on Blu-ray, delivering the film in the widescreen ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The film has been given a brand new 4K restoration, which was sourced from the 35mm original camera negative.
The film seems to have sadly fallen off of the radar but I’m happy to see it given a new lease on life thanks to this new restoration, which is remarkable to say the least. It has a very wonderful film-like texture to it and the grain—which can be heavy—looks strong a good majority of the time; a handful of darker shots can look noisy in areas. The film has a warmer look, but it’s not as heavy as other recent restorations, where they tend to suck out the blues and give everything a heavy yellow tint. In this case things definitely lean warmer, but skin tones don’t look jaundiced and whites still manage to come off looking white (or white-ish), not a piss-yellow. The colour scheme of the film does lean more towards beige, which I’m sure is intentional, but there are still some nice pops of blue, green, and red. Black levels are also strong, but some low-lit sequences can crush out details, which may be more a side effect of the original lighting and photography.
Detail levels are strong, and textures and fine patterns look great. There can be an ever-so-slight fuzz to things, but like the black levels it could have more to do with the original photography and possibly the film stock. Outside of that, everything is rendered cleanly. It looks impressive.
(As a note, it looks as though the opening credits weren’t taken from a film source and were instead recreated digitally.)
The film’s monaural soundtrack is presented here in lossless 1.0 PCM. Dialogue sounds perfectly fine, as does background noise and other sound effects, fidelity coming off adequate. The strongest aspect to the audio presentation ends up being the film’s music, which sounds to have been remastered. The music sounds sharp and crisp, and is delivered with a wide amount of range, which has the unfortunate side effect of making it stick out, almost to a distracting level, in comparison to every other area of the track.
The previous DVD from 2003 only offered an audio commentary as a feature, which Criterion has ported over to this edition. It features Dan Pine, son of writers Lester and Tina Pine; actors Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs; and filmmaker George Tillman, Jr. Everyone has been recorded separately and edited together. The track starts off well enough, with Pine explaining his parents’ part in writing the script (and throughout he talks about what inspired them and how they worked to get the film made) before Jones, Carroll, and others pop up, but it almost immediately becomes obvious there is going to be an incredible amount of dead space spread out throughout the track, which edited tracks like this usually manage to avoid. Most of the time one of the participants will pop up, say a little bit, and then disappear, and then after what feels like an eternity someone else will pop up and say something and then disappear. Carroll and Jones have the bulk of the track, and their comments at least prove interesting, the two covering a wide range of topics either around what it was like being a black actor during the 70s (one was usually limited to exploitation films) or the film itself, including discussion on their own performances (Jones apologizes for a sequence where he feels he hammed it up) or their characters. I’m actually trying to remember when Tillman first shows up in the track, but his few comments I recall are around the structure of the film, while Hilton-Jacobs talks about his own experiences on the film and as a young black actor. There is some good material in here, but the track filled with a surprising amount of dead space, as though they only got a few minutes’ worth of material from each participant.
Some newer material also appears on this disc and things start off with an excellent 30-minute discussion around the film, featuring programmer Ashley Clark and filmmaker/actor Robert Townsend communicating remotely. The film had a huge impact on Townsend on a number of levels (including personal) and he discusses what it was that touched him about the film, from the non-judgmental representation of its characters (during a time when Blaxploitation was huge) to its frank depiction of the welfare system of the time. He also admires its storytelling and how its subtle in its politics, the film having no desire to beat you over the head nor skirt around the issues it brings up.
Criterion next manages to dig up excerpts from an audio recording of actor Diahann Carroll speaking at the AFI in 1974. The 22-minute presentation features Carroll talking about her early work, like the television show Julia, and then the awareness that is required as a black actress in Hollywood, using Klute as an example (if she were to play the Fonda role in that film, for example, she is aware audiences would see a black prostitute differently from a white prostitute). She then shares some stories around Claudine, though the most interesting one (which I don’t recall even being mentioned in the commentary) is that the film first centered around a white single mother who had cancer, the story later changed to focus around a black single mother later (I did a double-take at that).
The presentation of this feature is worth nothing as Criterion usually sticks to stale ones for the audio-only content, presenting the audio over a photo most of the time. A little more effort has been put into this one, turning it into a visual essay of sorts, presenting photos and video representing what Carroll is talking about (most of the time), along with the film’s trailer when Carroll starts talking about Fox’s uncertainty on how to advertise the film (though it sounds as though they eventually just did an Awards style rollout). Illustrations are also used in a few places. This actually helped the feature flow a little better, and also highlights some of the hurdles the film faced. Another plus: Criterion presents subtitles for the audio that is hard to hear.
Finally, critic Imogen Sara Smith shows up to offer background around director John Berry, going over his early years with the Mercury Theater to his move to Hollywood and eventual exile to France after being added to the black list, sadly because of his short film about the Hollywood Ten. She attributes that last point to being one of the primary reasons for why he is not as well known as she figures he should be. But through her 20-minute discussion she highlights the experiences and work that formed his desire to address social and racial injustice, as represented in Claudine.
The disc then closes with an insert featuring an essay by critic Danielle A. Jackson, offering a brief summary of the film’s production history before analyzing the film itself and the social issues addressed within it.
Not a packed edition by any means, and the commentary is lackluster overall, but the content is good and the video features are worth going through.
It's not a loaded special edition by any means, and the commentary's construction leaves a lot to be desired, but Criterion's edition for Claudine still offers, in every respect, a significant upgrade over Fox's prior DVD edition.