Somethin' To Talk About
Whoopi Goldberg delivers an appreciation of pioneering comic Jackie "Moms" Mabley
By Alex Odood / Jester correspondent
Whoopi Goldberg brought a project she is passionate about to the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22 – a fascinating and eye opening documentary she directed about the life and career of pioneering comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley, titled “I Got Somethin’ To Tell You.”
We may all have all heard of Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Arsenio Hall but recent generations don't seem to know the name Moms Mabley or the immense impact she had on many of those performers. “Moms Mabley has been a huge inspiration to me and so many others, but not a lot of folks outside of the comedy world know about her legacy,” says Goldberg. “There are a lot of us who wouldn’t be working today without pioneers like her.”
Born Loretta Mary Aiken in North Carolina, the woman who would eventually transform into the stage character of Moms Mabley, began performing on the black vaudeville circuit, later becoming the rare female comic who could take command at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Goldberg’s film draws on recently rediscovered performance footage, stock photography and audio recordings to recount the unique story of a black female performer in the 1920’s who, remarkably, kept control of her own career. From very early on, Moms Mabley appeared on stage in a clumsy, off-putting outfit which immediately reminds us of a relative we might have in our own family. Large sundress, flowery hat, no teeth, raspy voice, and big shoes were all calculated on her part to appear sexless and harmless. By appearing homely, she could get away with diving into risky topics such as gender, sex and racism, and prove points without appearing to be heavy-handed or alienating audiences.
In a particularly good example of this that Goldberg included, a clip of Mabley four decades into her career finds her telling how on several occasions she was called to the White House to meet with the Kennedys and LBJ. Mabley expertly set up the absurdity of world leaders calling upon this seemingly frail, crass old comedian to solve urgent matters of the day but her audiences also knew that Moms Mabley had in fact, visited the White House on several occasions so an element of "it could be true?" lingered in the air. This was Moms’ brilliant way of not only speaking about politics and segregation but sneaking up on us with a great punchline.
Goldberg’s own stature made it possible to get a lot of context about Mabley’s influence through interviews with respected comedians and entertainers including Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers, Bill Cosby, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Harry Belafonte, Arsenio Hall, Dick Cavett, Debbie Allen, Sidney Poitier, Kathy Griffin and Quincy Jones. Goldberg herself serves as narrator of the documentary and reflects on Mabley on-camera at points in the movie, joining this chorus of performers.
And, at this festival screening, Goldberg appeared for a Q&A moderated by David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter, following the film. It was an amazing and insightful discussion. Whoopi was in rare form right out of the gate with humorous behind the scenes perspectives on the process of researching, financing and editing the movie, going from an early disappointment of the project’s original investors walking away over creative differences, to the decision to use Kickstarter (an internet-based public fundraising site) to raise financing. Rooney even joked at one moment that he could almost excuse himself from the stage because “Whoopi seems to have this in hand.”
Goldberg also shared other challenges of making the documentary, such as the lack of records of Moms Mabley’s life, in part because she was born at a time when detailed records were rarely kept on the poorer segments of the population. In addition, several priceless video and audio clips were found, but their owners demanded prohibitively expensive fees to use them, so they could not be included.
Still, “I Got Somethin’ To Tell You” succeeds at making Mabley accessible to audiences who grew up well after the eras of the Ed Sullivan Show, or even “Laugh In” or the Smothers Brothers program, which all captured parts of Mabley’s latter career. Mabley was a talented vaudeville actor, entertainer, comedian and storyteller who confronted politics, segregation, sexism and ageism on her own terms. She was vastly ahead of her time and her influence was felt by an entire a generation of talented performers that followed.
Goldberg clearly identifies with her subject and, when asked in the Q&A, about the documentary’s main thread, she said that it was simply herself. Goldberg had not planned to appear in the film at all, but eventually included her narration and commentary to make the context clearer.
For those who missed this limited festival run, HBO has picked up Goldberg’s documentary and plans to air it and release it later in 2013. I'm very much looking forward to seeing it again and highly recommend everyone have a listen to what Moms has to tell us!
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© 2005-2017 Michael Shashoua