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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Women in Film Vintage Review: Diahann Carroll's Oscar-Nominated Performance in "Claudine"

Starring: Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs 
(Director: John Berry, 1974)

From the moment she steps onto the scene in Claudine, Diahann Carroll commands your attention. You see, she’s not your stereotypical down-on-her-luck black woman from the projects waving her finger in your face and speaking at ridiculously high volumes.

Rather, our heroine is just coming home from a long day’s work, eight-plus hours of cleaning after folks and cooking warm meals for them. As a single mother of six, you’d think she’d be going home to the same tasks. But instead, she walks through the front door interrupting the natural chaos of her apartment—son blasting music, daughter hogging the bathroom, etc. But with just one look at her face, the whole apartment quiets down.

It’s that respect that Carroll’s title character demands from not only her children, but from the audience, whose preconceived notions about her are quickly evaporated once she introduces herself to us. She’s tough but not abrasive, aware but not haughty. In essence, she represents many single women—of any color—today. While Claudine isn’t a weak character, she’s certainly not a perfect one. She’s not neat. And she doesn’t claim to always have the answers, like she just leapt out of an after school special. She goes through many of the same issues women face today—trying to provide for her kids, being a good mother, a good person, dating as a single parent, etc.

That said, viewers empathize with her, while not having to sympathize or pity a downtrodden character. In other words, we march with her instead of looking down at her. As respected as she comes across onscreen, those who know her best—her kids—still run to her side when her heart gets broken after a romantic disappointment, which speaks to Carroll’s ability to humanize a character whose sensitivity isn’t first evident. Carroll creates a character that goes far outside the tight constraints of many of today’s leading female characters of color. She shows us a whole character, not one whose fractured story orbits around others. We get to see her fail, and we see her succeed. She’s juggling a lot and understandably feels the urge to wring a few necks, but we always get her, we get why. She’s just one of the gals--relatable, real.

This post was originally published by PopMatters, as part of their 2012 Essential Performances issue. 


Hal said...

A terrific performance, the best of Carroll's career IMO. Diana Sands was originally cast as Claudine, but sadly had to back out due to her terminal cancer diagnosis. I always wondered what the film would have been like with Sands (a great and underrated actress who was only 39 when she passed away), but it turned out to be excellent as it is.

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