The Treat: Director Robert Townsend: the film ‘Claudine’ ‘changed my life’

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“[Claudine]” is one of the first slices of Black life that I saw that made me want to be a filmmaker,” says director Robert Townsend. Photo courtesy of Townsend Entertainment.

Robert Townsend, director of the groundbreaking 1987 movie industry satire “Hollywood Shuffle,” recalls how John Berry’s 1974 film “Claudine” resonated with him at the time. The romantic comedy-drama, which he felt was an authentic portrait of Black life, made him aspire to become a filmmaker. 

The story, written by Lester and Tina Pine, features a single mother (Diahann Carroll) living on welfare in Harlem with her children. The film shed light on systemic economic inequality and family life with a light touch and deepened the representation of the Black experience on film at the height of the “blaxploitation” era in Hollywood. “Claudine” also stars James Earl Jones and features an iconic score by Curtis Mayfield, largely sung by Gladys Knight and the Pips

Carroll was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, and won the 1975 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress for her role as Claudine Price, while Jones won the Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture.

More: Director Robert Townsend on the always relevant “Hollywood Shuffle”

This segment has been edited for length and clarity. 

“When I was a kid growing up, we were on welfare. My mother raised four kids on her own. When I saw this film called “Claudine,” [starring] the late Diahann Caroll, she plays a woman on welfare with seven kids, and— a lot of you know him as the voice of Darth Vader — but James Earl Jones as this lovable trash man who falls in love with Claudine.

The dialogue is so well written, honest, heartfelt, [and] the comedy! It's directed by John Barry, [who] was blacklisted, [but] this was one of the few films that he could get off the ground, and he does a masterful job. Everything that is set up is paid off. It is so well written. It's on par with anything by Billy Wilder from “The Apartment” to… you name it.

I have to give a shout out to the brilliant, brilliant Curtis Mayfield. He was able to write a film score that furthers the storyline while giving you the heart, the sadness. It's a mixture of jazz and R&B, and sometimes the chords are straight out of the church, and singing sometimes as an instrument is Gladys Knight. 

I listen to the soundtrack all the time. It's on my phone and [the song] “To Be Invisible:” There's one little kid in the story who wants to be invisible because he feels like he's in the way, and when that score plays, and eventually when the garbage man says, “Hey, I want to be a part of your family. You kids are gonna be my kids,” the little boy would always, because he's invisible, he would write his words on a piece of paper. And he writes: “I don't eat much.” And that is just, ah! It fills my heart.

I just think it's a feel good movie, but it's one of the first slices of Black life that I saw that made me want to be a filmmaker because something about it says, “That's real.” Those other films … didn't really resonate with me, [but] that one really did. 



Rebecca Mooney