Claudine (1974) written by Tina and Lester Pine, directed by John Berry
Medicine for Melancholy (2009) written and directed by Barry Jenkins
I originally thought of writing Claudine and Medicine for Melancholy as two separate entries, but then I sat down and watched Claudine again after many years, and realized that the two had to be written together. Not so much because of their similarities (and there are a few), or their differences (quite a few more). But because they are both love stories with brown people, and because they are both so much more than that.
It is 1974 and Claudine is released starring Diahann Carroll as Claudine Price and James Earl Jones as Rupert P. Marshall. Claudine Price (Diahann Carroll) is a single mother of six who works as a domestic and collects welfare so she can raise her kids in a crowded apartment in Harlem. Rupert P. Marshall, played by James Earl Jones is a garbage collector who asks her out and is turned down; but after a bit of convincing, Claudine decides to take Rupert (Roop, as she later calls him) up on his offer. The date ends with them in bed. They become lovers and then complications arise. There are unruly kids (Claudine’s children are Bebe’s kids, really, with fresh mouths full of backtalk and foul language); a nosy welfare case worker; a wayward, pregnant daughter; an idealistic revolutionary son Charles (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs who also played Freddy “Boom Boom” Washington on the television series Welcome Back, Kotter); another son who is truant and just wants to roll dice on the corner; and Rupert supports two daughters of his own from different women. Rupert abandons it all briefly; Claudine breaks down; and the rest would be a spoiler so put it on your list if you haven’t seen it already.
Now it’s 2008 and Medicine for Melancholy is released starring Wyatt Cenac as Micah and Tracy Heggins as Jo. Micah who is earthy and self-assured and Jo who at times is beautifully, appropriately stoic, and equally self-assured, start off with sex similarly to Claudine and Rupert. (Jo: “This is a one night stand.” Micah: “It’s only been one night…can’t do anything about that.”). Reluctantly on Jo’s part, and after Micah does some sleuthing to find out where she lives, they decide to get to know each other a little bit. They do, and one night becomes many.
Enough about sex, what about the love? Claudine Price and Rupert P. Marshall are older, (somewhat) wiser, and are clear about what they want before they start messing around. They have the simple aim of having a good time and enjoying good company… grown-folk stuff. On the other hand, Micah and Jo start off cloudy and get clear eyed as they bike around San Francisco together. Regardless of their start, human nature takes the bait and all of them get struck by Cupid’s arrow despite their best attempts to remain cool. Rupert’s deep & open admiration for Claudine is a breath of fresh air and Micah’s dogged pursuit of Jo is anything but cool.
We’ve got sex, we’ve got love, and both films have the Black experience in two very distinct ways. Claudine is set during the openly hostile race wars of the 70s. San Francisco becomes Micah’s wingman as he bikes her around the city and takes Jo to places she has not been and he has not been either. Both movies have gorgeous and exciting soundtracks (Gladys Knight you sing the hell out of “The Makings of You,” as Diahann Carroll luxuriates in a lemon fresh Joy bubble bath in Rupert’s apartment and Medicine yields great tunes by bands I’ve never heard of that are very much not R&B). Even still there is a certain salty, realness, and emotional nakedness to the intimacy in both films that’s got me hearing Cee lo Green singing “Fool for You”) :
“What?! That deep, that sweet, that something that wet that fire, that fall for stuff/
That up and that down, that front and that back, baby I can’t seem to get enough/
Ooo Baby let me do it, let me do it ’til I’m satisfied/
ahh ahh Baby now please baby I ain’t got no more pride/
Should I talk about the brown thing, the race thing? This is where it gets wonderful because in 1974 Harlem we’ve got race consciousness going on, placed here and there and in places that if you don’t listen closely. When Rupert meets Claudine’s daughter Patrice, he says her name is like Patrice Lumumba the Congolese revolutionary who was assassinated 14 years earlier in 1960. Claudine’s oldest son, Charles, is part of a Black Nationalist group and her eldest daughter, Charlene, is seeing a boy who renamed himself from Teddy to Abdullah. Rupert even names a mouse, who has been lingering around his kitchen, Milhouse (the middle name of then-President Richard Nixon). At one point Charlene turns off a Tarzan movie on the television exclaiming: “Mama they rootin’ for Tarzan! He up there fighting a thousand Blacks and they up there screaming, ‘Yeah kick the shit out of them Tarzan!’”. And Claudine gives the welfare system and Black stereotypes a sound beating.
Claudine: “Haven’t you heard about us ignorant Black bitches always got to be laying up with some dude; just grinding out some babies for the taxpayers to take care of?”
Rupert: “You know us Black studs. No feelings, knock ‘em up and leave ‘em. Don’t give a shit if the children are starving.”
Their struggles to create a family unit through their love and their hard work to provide financially for their children makes a mockery of the system and the stereotypes meant to halt them.
On almost the opposite pole, Medicine for Melancholy gives us a different view of the Black experience in the racial ambiguity of the 21st century. While the Black experience is all over Claudine, it is up to the audience to decide what Black is in Medicine for Melancholy. Micah is a modern-day race man who is trying to round out his identity as a Black man. Jo is what the director, Barry Jenkins, calls “post-race.” She doesn’t prescribe to what is typically expected of Black culture; she just is what she is. The fact that she has a white boyfriend is stated without a lot of flashing neon signs to point our way to any grand conclusions about her racial identity. Jenkins was going to shoot the film with a mixed race couple but then decided that the issues would become “more dynamic with two Black people . . . [who] don’t agree because they are not the same people.” Here we get to see something rare in film: a divergence of minds on the importance of race within the same Black culture. It takes a lover story and takes a leap forward into the modern-day debate on race consciousness within Black culture. It delves quite deeply into not just race issues but other social issues like housing and socioeconomic inequalities. It’s good to see that we’ve got a love story that’s not all booty and glistening brown skin and spoken word and jazz/r&b floating in the background (nothing wrong with that . . . . just bear with me for a second). But Melancholy brings something else too. From the YouTube commentary, this film widens the lens on Black experiences. People from other countries and cultures were commenting that they had no idea Black Americans could be like Micah and Jo. So many folks outside of the United States are fed what mainstream media and big bucks Hollywood has decided is black American. The director himself even asks, “How many Black people do you see riding bikes in a movie… or jumping around to neo new wave music in a mostly white club?”
As Claudine tackles race issues at the heart of the 70s, Medicine for Melancholy reflects the emerging reality of colored people in the present day that should have been made clear when the Obamas moved into the White House. But hey, if restating that fact gets us a great film, then I’m all for it.
But we’re celebrating Black Love right? So let’s get back to the love. I chose Claudine and Medicine for Melancholy because they are beautiful love stories; very different in their approach but the result is the same. Black love is a beautiful thing to experience and it is a beautiful thing to watch.
Audrey Peterson is the Editor in Chief of American Legacy Magazine. She is also a historian, a writer, and a culture critic.