As I count the hours until tonight’s broadcast of the 1974 motion picture Claudine on Turner Classic Movies with Ava Duvernay introducing, I am still thinking of TCM’s recent broadcast of Julie Dash’s 1991 Daughters of the Dust.
Duvernay also introduced that beautiful film, which I will show in my Antebellum America class this fall. Even though it is set at the turn of the century, the imagery, symbolism and narrative centers an African past and the horrors of the Middle Passage.
Like Claudine, Daughters also bears witness to the specific beauty and challenges of women of African descent.
Dash’s sensitivity to such beauty and challenge permeated the film which, as Toni Cade Bambara has written, was anchored by “nonlinear, multilayered” storytelling that is “more in keeping with the storytelling traditions that inform African cinema.”
Bambara has also noted how Dash’s “demystified and democratic treatment of space positions Daughters in progressive world film culture movements that bolster socially responsible cinema-Cuban, Caribbean, African, Philipino/Philopina, Cine Nuova, UA Multicultural Independent.” By space, she is referring to many things including her bypassing the use of a hero in Daughters, which receives inspiration from her childhood and ancestors. No one, as she writes, is in the backdrop in this film.
I will be thinking about Bambara’s point tonight as I watch John Berry‘s Claudine, which showcases the experiences of an African American mother (Diahann Carroll) of six on welfare and her beloved (James Earl Jones), a garbage man, in a more linear way.
I once watched this film with my husband who does not often watch movies. As the film ended, he decided that Claudine’s eldest son Charles (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) was the hero. Charles made Rupert P. Marshall, Claudine’s intended, be accountable to Claudine.
I found my husband’s take on it striking. In a graduate class, I had written a paper, centering Claudine as a hero of sorts. I did this even as I, not unlike Dash, sought to see the hero in every member of Claudine’s family and “Rupe.” They had to be heroes to survive the changing world around them.
Whereas the horrors of turn of the century Jim Crow practices will await the family heading to big cities in Daughters, Claudine’s family is dealing with the postwar decline of cities. The city was gritty. Cities were often without resources for the mostly brown people left behind when suburbs appear, enabled by the GI Bill that was supposed to aid many, but helped a select few.
It is in this kind of America, and specifically in Harlem, that Claudine, Rupe and the children must navigate. Notably, it is to Harlem that at least one Peazant, the fictitious family in Daughters, will head if we are to rely on the incredible novel Dash also wrote that receives inspiration from her 1991 film.
I have been to Harlem many times. I have been to the Gullah Sea Islands, too, and look forward to returning this fall for the Association for the Study of American Life and History conference (ASALH). In North Charleston, South Carolina. There, I’ll co-moderate a discussion of Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, a documentary about Zora Neale Hurston. But I will make time to get to nearby St. Helena Island where I once had my work presented in a group show and where I once wrote a magazine story on a Gullah festival.
As true this evening and whenever I watch Dash’s Daughters, when I return to St. Helena Island, I will be thinking about this idea of hero. They include the ancestors to which Dash points in Daughters. There may be more subtle pointing in Claudine via references to decolonization and Black Pride by Charlene and Charles and even Rupe, Claudine’s two eldest children.
In the past, I have asked my students to notice the diasporic colors on a sticker on the back of Rupe’s garbage truck and his mention of Patrice Lumumba when asking Claudine’s daughter Patrice about the origins of her name. When I get to the 1970s in my American Civilization Since 1865 course this fall, I will mention this sticker and Lumumba in the context of the vast changes happening on the continent and in the States after the Second World War. I look forward to deepening my view on matters with these two two motion pictures in mind.
PS The TCM live watch party of Claudine was great. It was harder to participate than it was when watching Daughters because the dialogue is so wonderful. But building community around important work is important so participate I did. I recorded it on my DVR and, of course, I still have a well-used DVD copy. Once, while recovering from a surgery, I watched Claudine over and over for an entire week. It was like having my own family in the small room in which I lived. The movie was better than medicine. If Claudine could get better, so could I. And I did.