Simone Drake to discuss newly restored classic at Wexner Center
Simone Drake, chair of the Department of African American and African Studies, will discuss "Claudine," an acclaimed romantic drama (“a revelation and a delight” per the Chicago Reader) starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, after the newly restored film screens at the Wexner Center for Arts on Feb. 26.
For Drake, it represents a moment to share a conversation about a key film in the history of black film.
Though "Claudine" boasts the things that would seemingly aid a solid place in film history — a moderate degree of box office success, an Oscar nomination for Carroll and a hit soundtrack composed by Curtis Mayfield featuring tracks by Gladys Knight and the Pips — the socially conscious, politically engaged story of a single mother navigating the welfare system and embarking on a romance still flies somewhat under the radar as an important film from the 1970s, despite being warmly remembered by those who caught it the first time around.
Drake notes that upon sharing the news of the screening and her discussion, “[Author and journalist] Wil Haygood reached out to me and expressed his enthusiasm about this film he still remembered seeing during its theatrical release. And when I was re-watching the film, my dad called it ‘an oldie but goodie,’ so it clearly had an impact on them, but yet the film doesn’t come up as much as we would expect in the genealogy of black film.”
This fresh new restoration from 20th Century Fox should go a long way toward positioning director John Berry’s film for renewed critical appraisal and audience rediscovery.
Released in an era of smash blaxploitation films, "Claudine" may have been somewhat overshadowed by those bigger box office hits — "It was in competition with 'Shaft' and 'Superfly' and that whole series of films and I’m not sure how much crossover success it may have had,” says Drake.
Additionally, its forthrightness in depicting the central romance between the title character and a charismatic sanitation worker played by James Earl Jones was still somewhat new for the time. That intimacy — and not just limited to the sexual aspects of their relationship — is one of the most memorable and impactful aspects of the film.
Per Drake, “It’s often difficult for filmmakers to imagine black intimacies onscreen and I mean that separate from sex or sexual acts, but intimate relationships.”
The film’s depiction of intimacy is not constrained to the couple at the center of the picture, either — it extends to candid discussions about pregnancy, reproduction, welfare and personal and public politics. It is a film steeped in its historical moment, with reverberations for today, too.
“I think that it’s a tricky film in that if you don’t know history then you could miss a lot. Yet in some ways so much has not changed, and you can see relevance to the contemporary situation without specifically knowing that history.”
Drake notes, “with 'Claudine' you’re getting direct engagement with social policy and some very significant engagement with the impacts of then-recently established civil rights policies. The Fair Housing Act was in ’68 and you had a lot of acts and legislation seen as the culmination of the civil rights movement. You can see with this film as it engages with that particular social political and economic situation.”
As for the screening and discussion, Drake hopes audiences leave with not just an appreciation for the film, but an understanding "that art — film in particular — can engage with social policy and with actual lived experiences of black people."
"Claudine," featuring a post-screening discussion with Drake, screens Tuesday, Feb. 26, at the Wexner Center. The screening is cosponsored by the Columbus International Black Film Festival.