Entertainment » Television

Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley

by Phil Hall
Contributor
Wednesday May 21, 2014
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Jackie "Moms" Mabley was an iconoclastic figure in American comedy. As one of the first African-American women to secure a career as a stand-up comic, she broke gender barriers on the "chitlin’ circuit" of black vaudeville and later broke racial barriers through a series of television appearances in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Strangely, Mabley’s career has escaped celebration for too many years - and while this documentary from Whoopi Goldberg (making her directing debut) fills some of the void, it nonetheless leaves many aspects of Mabley’s life unanswered.

Born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, N.C., in 1894, she ran away from home during her teens and found her way into the segregated world of black vaudeville. Her stage name was taken from a one-time boyfriend, while her stage persona of a sloppily dressed yet intellectually sharp observer resonated with African-American audiences. By the 1940s, she was a headliner at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and starred in two independently-produced all-black movies. White audiences were mostly unaware of Mabley until she appeared in a 1967 TV special featuring the leading black comics of the era. After that, she became a ubiquitous figure on variety programs and talk shows; she also starred in a low-budget 1974 comedy film called "Amazing Grace."

Unlike other female comics of her day, Mabley’s act avoided harsh displays of excessive self-deprecation. Instead, she gave the impression of an elderly woman with a raunchy appetite for younger men. She also offered comic commentary on the civil rights movement, alternating between wry observations and caustic putdowns. She made a rare foray into serious subject matter with a heartfelt recording of "Abraham, Martin and John," but her comic storytelling skills provided an amusing yet honest record of both black and white societies during a turbulent time.

Unlike other female comics of her day, Mabley’s act avoided harsh displays of excessive self-deprecation.

This film provides a line-up of comics that benefitted from Mabley’s breakthroughs, though few actually seem to have known her. (Joan Rivers recalls appearing on the same bill with her during an Ed Sullivan telecast, but Mabley was in costume and character and never socialized with Rivers.) And this raises the true disappointment in the film: just who was Mabley?

What is known is that the off-stage Mabley was far removed from her beloved persona. She favored mannish suits and, according to one contemporary interviewed in the film, made no secret of her lesbian relations. The film briefly mentions that she was twice raped during her youth, resulting in pregnancies - both babies were given away for adoption. But Mabley also had four other children, none of whom are mentioned here.

But beyond an allegedly fabled fondness for playing (and cheating at) cards, the details of Mabley’s private life are not explored here. The viewer has no idea where she lived, what she thought of her career - especially her breakthrough to a wider and whiter audience very late in her life - or how her life experiences shaped her comedy. The documentary has a surplus of recordings and film and TV clips that highlight the brilliance of her act, but the woman behind the act remains an enigma - and the viewer is eager to learn more about this remarkable yet elusive comedian.

Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley
Rated TV-14, 71 minutes
$19.98, HBO Home Entertainment

Phil Hall is the author of "The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time

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