Special Post! Yeeseon Chae is a senior majoring in Economic Consulting at the Kelley School of Business. She is also the Web Content Director for the WIUX station blog and a research assistant for the Black Film Center/Archive. After graduation, she plans to work in the arts and film sector and continue writing.
The three films in the ‘Love! I’m In Love!’ IU Cinema series all place Black life and imagination to the forefront. The series include Claudine (1974), A Warm December (1973), and Aaron Loves Angela (1975). The series will begin February 6th, 6:15PM at the IU Cinema with a pre-screening talk by Philana Payton, University of Southern California Ph.D. Candidate in Cinema and Media studies.
Payton received the 2nd Annual Graduate Writing Prize from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Black Caucus for her paper “Claudine, The Original Welfare Queen: Diahann Carroll and the Disruption of Respectability.” She will discuss Carroll’s career, particularly her groundbreaking role in the television series Julia in 1968.
Claudine screens February 6 at 7PM. Get Tickets
Radical Black Love on Screen and its Criticisms in 1970s Mainstream Media
Claudine (1974), A Warm December (1973), and Aaron Loves Angela (1975) were all released consecutively in the mid-1970s, but even on viewing today, they still maintain a boldness and simplicity in the motives of the main characters in these films; to be loved and to be in love. These films reinforce a narrative of love stories that is still rare on screen, one that is centered around Black lives.
Claudine follows the titular character, played by the dynamic Diahann Carroll, a single mother on welfare who works “clandestinely,” according to the New York Times review, as a maid for rich, white families. She meets Roop, played by James Earl Jones, a garbage collector who becomes completely enamored with her in their first meeting in the first few minutes of the film. Both Claudine and Roop fight for their love against the institution of the welfare system that holds them back even as it is supposed to support them.
In A Warm December, Sidney Poitier directs and stars as a widowed American doctor on holiday with his daughter. He meets Catherine, played by Esther Anderson, who is not only the niece of an ambassador to an African state, but is later revealed to be a princess. With elements of suspense and mystery, we get deeper and deeper into the secret life of Catherine but ultimately, the only question the audience is left asking is if the two can make it together.
Directed by Gordon Parks Jr., Aaron Loves Angela is a teen romance and coming-of-age story featuring the two main lovers, Aaron and Angela. Aaron, played by Kevin Hooks, is a member of the aspiring but losing basketball team the Harlem Saints, and doesn’t really want to do anything but be with Angela, played by Irene Cara in her first film role. Despite his father’s wishes to turn Aaron into the sports star he could’ve been, Aaron tries to woo Angela by wandering around New York and scheming with his best man, Willie. The teenage couple falls in puppy love and soon they’re all running around together, holding hands, exploring 1970s New York.
These films provoke noticing a striking lack in love stories seen on screen even today. It puts into context recent films such as Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas and written by Lena Waithe, and the upcoming The Photograph, starring Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, where the relationship of Black lives are at the center. The reception of the three feature-length films reveal similarities in how mainstream media often reacts to stories of Black love. Though they are all completely singular stories, the treatment that each film receives are all a bit too similar. Films that do not address or try to appease the white gaze of what a Black life is supposed to look like, often hear from mainstream criticism that the film is either too bland or uninteresting, that there is nothing worth looking at.
Mainstream critics almost entirely set aside A Warm December in the larger Sidney Poitier cannon, casting it as a derivative film that was only a copy of A Love Story and A Roman Holiday. What these critics failed to consider is their lack of attention to Black family audiences. Historically Black newspapers, such as the Baltimore Afro-American and the Chicago Defender, gave the film high praise and pointed out that the film was unlike any they had seen, where the two Black characters on screen were wholly concerned with their own relationship.
Reviews from historically Black newspapers:
Earl Calloway of the Chicago Defender: “At last we have a film in “A Warm December” that presents Blacks in a three-dimensional life-style. Now showing at the United Artists Theatre, blacks and whites have an opportunity to see a portrait of two humans involved in normal living experiences.”
Atlanta Daily World’s review of the press screening for the film highlighted Poitier’s legacy of over 22 years in the industry, who at this point had started his own production company:
“Poitier has developed another beautiful film which can be enjoyed by the whole family. It is an entertaining mystery love story with a subtle flavor of suspense that tends to ease the pain of tragedy that develops as the story unfolds… The film is educational as well as entertaining and projects an international tone which is highlighted by the performance of a lyrical singing group led by Letta Mbutu, a powerful and moving folk singer, flown in from her native South Africa to London for the special restaurant sequence. The number alone was worth the price of a ticket.”
Reviews from Mainstream Media:
Gary Arnold of The Washington Post: “A Warm December has been simultaneously touted and dismissed as “a black ‘Love Story,’” but it’s not really that bad or that distinctive. The problem with the film is that it’s not much of anything, including anything significantly annoying. “A Warm December” is a lukewarm offering of romance and heartbreak, and its effects may prove too mild and transitory to sustain either the born sobbers or the born cynics in the audience… The movie itself slowly succumbs for a lack of variety, character and eventfulness. For example, the only interesting aspect of the heroine’s character is her incurable illness. If this girl weren’t dying, she would be utterly dimensionless.”
Roger Greenspun for the New York Times: “Sidney Poitier’s “A Warm December” is the latest in the grand tradition of non-disfiguring incurable-illness movies. But there is a twist. He and she are black, and the illness now is sickle-cell anemia. You might call it a breakthrough, but then you might call anything a breakthrough. The real reasons for “A Warm December” (besides a good cry) are kindness to children, homely virtues, sentimental sex, touristy travel and unforgettable personality. It is like opening some impossibly typical transcendentally awful issue of Reader’s Digest… Everything in “A Warm December” tends toward the ordinary. Free at last to do what she wishes, Catherine cries “May I cook? – and wash dishes, and make beds, and fuss around with Stefanie…”
Chicago Tribune: Gene Siskel reviewed the film and theorized that Poitier is trying to “shed his establishment, Uncle Tom image… to “prove” his black American consciousness, he is called upon to treat a case of sickle cell anemia.”
Criticism is necessary with works of art to bring context and criteria of story or style, but in reading these old reviews, the question that audiences and critics alike should ask themselves is, “what do we expect when a story is supposedly a “black love story?”
Many of the reviews from mainstream criticism towards A Warm December show rather broad assumptions by the critics’ perspective about the audiences of the film. The larger assumption seems to be that no audience will want to see A Warm December because it’s been done before. But in truth, it hadn’t been done before. A Warm December was in sharp contrast with the blaxploitation films of the time, and also largely racist stereotypes of Black lives shown on screen.
A Warm December was also directed by Sidney Poitier, who revealed that he just wanted to make “an old-fashioned love story.” In an article in the New York Amsterdam News, Poitier said that he “wanted this film to be representative of middle class Black people. I wanted to show that they are aware.”
“Conceding that some of his former roles were those of “one-dimensional Blacks,” he expressed a desire to emphasize human issues in his films as opposed to “shoot-em-up qualities.” He noted the success of many of the Black action films in contrast to movies about Blacks which minimized sex and violence and added, “Even if these films (like “A Warm December”) don’t make money, they are still necessary.”
Quoted in the Baltimore Afro-American, Poitier also said that “a large segment of people are not accustomed to viewing “black people as people.” In this picture he’s trying to show that black people love, care, hope and fear. Also, that the black man does exist, first, and he is not an appendage to the white world.”
For Claudine, it was mostly widely accepted by mainstream criticism because it seemed real enough to them. Historically black newspapers and mainstream media were mostly in support of the film, where mainstream media were more adamantly for the film’s “grittiness.” The Chicago Defender called the film “a major step forward in the genre of “black films,” where there is a “sympathetic humor that elevates it above any exclusive ethnic category without eliminating its pertinence to the black audience.”
The Los Angeles Times: The film was applauded for being able to maintain a seemingly contradictory tone of humor and also realism.
RH Gardner of the The Baltimore Sun describes Claudine as a film that engages the two categories of films coming out of Third World Cinema (a production company created to raise standards of films dealing with minorities). Gardner defines these two categories as films made for black audiences versus those made for white audiences, with films for black audiences supposedly in a more realistic setting, for Gardner, which is the “ghetto.”
The Baltimore Sun: “The former usually have a ghetto setting, with the characters participating in various crimes and acts of violence against the white establishment and one another. The latter, which almost invariably star Sidney Poitier, revolve around the actions of outstanding black people faced with situations readily understandable to middle-class whites… Claudine successfully and engagingly combines the two categories by treating the very real problems of fairly authentic ghetto types according not to the crime-violence formula of the exploitation film, but to that of the sentimental comedy of Hollywood tradition.”
Diahann Carroll was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award in 1975 for her role as Claudine, but was only considered after the late Dianna Sands. Sands died before production but had suggested the role go to her friend Carroll. The role was also originally written “as a white woman who seeks homes for her six fatherless children before she dies of cancer, (Chicago Tribune).
Carroll accepted the role because she didn’t want to be typecast. The New York Amsterdam News reported that she wanted to have a different role than in the one of her hit show, Julia.
“I have been searching desperately for a role in a film that was not a sophisticated, well-dressed, educated lady, which has been my image over the past 17 years. I think it’s important not to set yourself into a certain category and become immovable… I can’t tell you how happy I was because the other image, at least for me, has become one-dimensional and in many instances quite boring.”
The New York Times praised it for being “simultaneously so good-natured and so moving,” and called it a beginning of more representation of Black life on film. This declaration of the beginning of new, real stories, is a sentiment similarly echoed today. Stories about non-white characters in love are still rare.
More recently, the film was featured at the Museum of Modern Art during their ‘Black Intimacy’ film series in October of 2017, alongside films like Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett and Crooklyn by Spike Lee.
Aaron Loves Angela was largely advertised as a teen romance movie released for the holiday season.
The film premiered in New York’s Cinerama Theatre, with proceeds from the premiere going to Police Athletic League, which apparently “help[s] city youngsters build fuller lives by developing new interests and gaining positive attitudes.” (Chicago Defender) The film was generally ignored by mainstream media outlets. Negative reviews include the Boston Globe who called it cliched while the Washington Post called it too saccharine and not involved enough with the “psychological traumas of Harlem youth.”
One more mainstream voice from the Los Angeles Times interpreted the film quite differently, suggesting that the imbalance of the Romeo and Juliet treatment of Aaron and Angela as not inconsistent or awkward, but meant to give a contrast to their outer world.
Aaron Loves Angela goes against the expectation of the mainstream voice with these two teens who don’t constantly react with surprise to the world that they know as normal to them, and instead are concerned more with being together.
These three films mostly fell into obscurity after their initial releases, possibly due to it not being owned by a bigger studio name. Claudine was one of the first films produced by Third World Cinema Corporation, a production company that was founded by Ossie Davis in 1972 to support more black, Puerto Rican, and minority voices in film. About a decade after its release, A Warm December was reported by the Los Angeles Sentinel to have had trouble in its release due to its distribution company, National General, experiencing financial problems thus leading the film to not being properly publicized, promoted, or distributed.
All three films of the 1970s still feel incredibly modern and fresh decades after their releases. Many of the discussions around representation and viewership that began around these releases are still echoed today. What these films argue for is the power in being seen on film, without a disclaimer, fully in the pursuit of contentment in being in love.
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