Whoopi honors Moms Mabley
by David-Elijah Nahmod
Whoopi Goldberg understands the importance of honoring those who came before us. In her debut as a filmmaker, Goldberg tips her hat to Jackie "Moms" Mabley (1894-1975), the boundary-smashing black comic who helped open a few doors for people like Whoopi herself.
Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin' to Tell You, for HBO, juxtaposes clips of Mabley with new interviews of current comics, both black and white, who have looked to Mabley for inspiration. Goldberg recalls a childhood in which seeing someone – anyone – black on the tube was considered an event. Even in those pre-civil rights days, Mabley dared to talk about things that "simply weren't discussed in polite society," like racism and sex. She didn't mince words, and didn't care if she made people uncomfortable.
"They called me trigger," she says in one clip. "I think that's what they said."
A regular performer at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater, Mabley commanded a salary of $10,000 per week as early as the 1930s. She occasionally appeared in male drag. Though she had been married, survived by children and grandchildren, it was an open secret that she also had affairs with women. She was a rape survivor. Though Goldberg doesn't ignore these facts, they're somewhat glossed over. Viewers' curiosity might be piqued when one interviewee talks about the quiet backstage acceptance towards Mabley's same-sex attractions. This is barely discussed before Goldberg moves on to the next topic.
Viewers might also wonder how Mabley was affected emotionally by having been raped not once, but twice. Though the film acknowledges these acts, they're given little more than a passing mention.
Goldberg focuses primarily on Mabley's third act, which included an occasional film role and a great deal of television. This offers viewers an abundance of clips that illustrate how gutsy she was. At this point in her career, Mabley presented herself as a horny old lady who preferred young studs over "old geezers." Dressed onstage as a cleaning woman, she gleefully boasted about her sexual conquests.
She had her serious moments. In the aftermath of the Kennedy and King assassinations, she recorded a cover of Dion's "Abraham, Martin and John," a tribute to the fallen leaders (including Pres. Lincoln) who did so much to improve the lives of African Americans. A clip of her singing the song on Hugh Hefner's 1960s talk show is gut-wrenching. Though she wasn't blessed with a singing voice, Mabley performs the plaintive lyrics from a place deep within her soul.
"She actually knew those guys," said Goldberg. "She knew Kennedy and King."
Nearly four decades after her death, Jackie "Moms" Mabley remains an inspiration not only to black performers, but to all marginalized people who might be dreaming of a life in the performing arts. At a time when black women had no voice, she made sure that her voice was heard. People are still listening today.
Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin' to Tell You, plays Nov. 18 on HBO. The film will also be available for online viewing and On Demand.