Whoopi Goldberg’s Moms Mabley documentary on HBO is a labor of love that pays homage to a seminal figure in American entertainment who paved the way for her own career. Like the Iceberg Slim documentary “Portrait of a Pimp” produced by Ice T, its a valuable historical document and love letter to a major, albiet underrated influence on an icon of today, an example of an artist discharching part of the debt they owe for artistic influence. In putting the film together, Goldberg faced some of the same challenges Ice T battled, namely, reconstructing a black historical figure of whom little of their background is known or documented, and is also not immediately familiar to contemporary audiences. Goldberg may have even less material to work with in constructing Mabley’s background than T had in constructing Beck’s (Iceberg Slim). The film makes creative usage of photographs, old B&W film clips, animations of Moms set to her records, exerpts from her albums, and commentary from popular entertainment figures of today who remember Mom’s comedy and the impact it had on their formative ideas about comedy, transmitting messages, and womens roles in entertainment and society.
One of the first things the doc focuses on is the brilliance of Mom’s trademark character, that of a cantakerous old truth telling lady. Commentators such as commedienne’s Kathy Griffin and Joan Rivers, became fans of Mom’s persona in her commercial height of the 1960s, Rivers actually working with her. This was however, a persona she’d been developing since she was a young woman. She grew from a young comedian utilizing the image of an old woman to tell the truth, to being an actual old woman using the old woman persona she’d cultivated to tell the types of truths you’d accept from your grandmother only. Female comedians noted that it’s easier for a woman to get her message across in comedy if they adopt a less glamorous image. Joan Rivers mentioned that the truth, which comedians traffic in, is often unpalatable, but people will often accept it from a homely looking woman. My mother was always interested in seeing female comedians “off duty” because she noticed a long time ago they rarely went for beauty in their image as a part of their acts. Eddie Murphy added that his hilarious grandmother character from the “Nutty Proffessor” movies, perhaps the funniest character in those movies, was based on Moms Mabley. From the voice right on down to the fake teeth. It’s easy to see how Mabley influenced Goldberg, who used to do an impression of her in her own routines, and also made it with an image that flouted so called conventional standards of beauty.
Goldberg makes it clear that there is simply not enough biographical information avaliable for her to do a full biography of Mabley. For Goldberg, the holes in Mabley’s background are symbolic of the black story in America as a whole, one that is underdocumented and requres detective work to flesh out more fully. But she is able to tell us that Mom’s was born Loretta Mary Aiken in 1897 in Brevard, North Carolina, to a large family of 4 girls and 6 boys. She ran away with a husband and wife vaudeville team who took her to New York City.
The doc also reveals a not so suprising fact about the legendary comedian, one that is very interesting in the conversations of today. Mom’s was a Lesbian. The great jazz dancer Norma Jean reveals this for us. Mom’s was also revealed to be a tough cookie who gambled with the men, and dressed in a sharp outfit of smart men’s suits, like a comedian Georgia Sands. It was remarked that pershaps, Mom’s masculine demeanor helped her thrive in the tough world of showiz. She was so identified with this, she was known in entertainment circles as “Mr. Moms”. This also reveals a level of tolerance in the black community for gay people that is rarely discussed in our current rush to single black people out for anti gay sentiments. Norma Miller said they didn’t even think of Mom’s as a homosexual at the time, that she was simply “Mr. Moms” and everybody accepted her for who she was.
The documentary follows Mom’s from the black “chitlin circuit” all the way on up to her mainstream success in the 1960s. By the ’60s she came to enjoy great visibility, appearing on television comedy shows, talk shows, and even placing a song, “Abraham, Martin and John” at the top of the pop charts. She also used her storytelling humor to comment on the racial tenor of the times, bringing out the humurous absurdity of racist attitudes in that most tense of time periods.
All in all, Goldberg does well with a tough task. She takes an entertainer born in the 19th century and attempts to tell her story in the 21st. The doc can be seen on HBO on Demand until January of 2014. Check it out, for the unique insight it gives into a great performer, and the lives of blacks, women, gays, and America as a whole in the 20th century, and how Moms help lay the groundwork for where we are today.