2013 Tribeca Film Review: Whoopi Goldberg’s ‘Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ To Tell You’

2013 Tribeca Film Review: Whoopi Goldberg's 'Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin' To Tell You'

Whoopi Goldberg’s directorial debut Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You, which made its world premiere last evening at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, highlights the career of comedic pioneer and entertainer Moms Mabley, who began her career as a vaudeville star who traveled the Chitlin’ Circuit with other iconic entertainers in the first half of the 20th century.

A pretty straightforward introduction by Goldberg begins the feature length documentary, which focuses on “Moms” life, born Loretta Mary Aiken, as an entertainer. There is some very amusing footage shown throughout, along with Mabley’s punchlines captioned against a black screen in creatively designed text.

I Got Somethin’ to Tell You is told through several celebrated comedians and entertainers, including Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers, Sydney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Jerry Stiller, Kathy Griffin, Quincy Jones among a few others, who celebrate the late comedic icon and first female comedian pioneer during the Civil Rights Movement.

Mabley inspired and influenced many entertainers through her legacy, which encompassed a unique talent and “subtle” yet resounding political voice. In one key scene, Mabley is shown with Sammy Davis Jr. at a Playboy Mansion TV special with Hugh Hefner and “bunnies”. Davis requests Mabley to do an impromptu performance of “Abraham, Martin & John”, an emotional tribute song to Lincoln, Dr. King and John and Bobby Kennedy. Mabley’s rendition is quite stirring; everyone in that scene was clearly moved.

Other than that, the documentary makes for pretty light-hearted, entertaining and easy viewing. Although, mentioned briefly by Goldberg when she’s in conversation with Arsenio Hall, is the fact that Mabley was raped twice in her youth. Both of those instances led to pregnancies, and Mabley gave up both children for adoption. Comedians are said to have gone through much suffering; comedy gives most, if not all, an escape from past traumatic events. Besides stating the aforementioned in their conversation, Goldberg does not elaborate on Mabley’s personal life.

Another known and intriguing fact about Mabley is that she came out as a lesbian at the age of 27. Offstage, when she wasn’t in “Moms” character, Mabley dressed as a man and called herself Jackie Mabley. Goldberg states this fact in one scene along with a couple of photographs. The director tells us that no one talked about it, because during that time “it was nobody’s business.” Well, it isn’t our business either apparently because the topic isn’t broached again.

There is much left unanswered. Upon some research after the screening, I came across a NY Times article, which reported, back in 1989, that late stage actress Clarice Taylor had “traveled all over the country, tracking down and interviewing surviving members of Moms Mabley’s family and researching the life of the late black comedienne.” The article also mentions that Mabley, who was the great-granddaughter of a slave and a white man, lost both of her parents at a young age: her fireman father died after a fire engine exploded and her mother was run over and killed by a truck on Christmas Day, while on her way home from Church.

However, none of these details are mentioned in Somethin’ to Tell You, which would have made for a more compelling documentary overall. Mabley had four surviving children; were any of them consulted? None of them appear in the documentary. Isn’t it ironic that her celebrity name is “Moms”?

Mabley was one of the greatest comedians of our time, who provided powerful comic relief during the Civil Rights Movement. Her homely appearance and no-holds- bar, raunchy punchlines, paved the way for many comedians who followed after, which are enough reasons to go watch I Got Somethin’ To Tell You. Yet, those same reasons seem to only scratch the surface of who she really was. We remember the entertainer, but who was the clever woman behind the very hilarious “Moms” character in the grandmother house robe?

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Comments

ALM

My goodness. I had no idea that she went through all of that trauma with her pregnancies and her parents' deaths. It's a miracle that she was able to keep pushing after all of that. Praise the Lord

JMac

I too wonder what else would (or should) have been revealed about Mabley's sexual preferences in any documentary? Do you want to see pictures of her out with other women, excerpts of love letters, estimates of how many women she slept with? Just as with the whole Queen Latifah mess, some people really need to step back and stop expecting a box seat for a nosy exposition into a celebrity's private life, esp. when that celebrity has made a concerted effort to separate stage/public life from their personal life. I still don't understand the fascination because I can completely accept that -whether some like it or not – it really is no one's business unless and until that person makes it our business. Heck, even then it still isn't our business and no one should feel pressure to put information out there that they don't want attention to.

I'll be watching the doc when it reaches HBO. I don't know much about Moms Mabley except from hearing a few of her later routines. What little I do know came from my parents (in their 70s) and watching shows that are no longer on the air and are never chosen to be re-aired for the future generations. It is greatly needed.

TAZ

I agree with Langston that any quality documentary feature about Moms Mabley is very needed.

It seems we are a bit to critical about the work that comes out and I mean that from the standpoint of whether it meets our expectation….what we want to see vice the vision and goal of the film maker. If this documentary is about the career of Moms Mabley, then our expectation should not be beyond that. I am also glad her personal life is not being exploited. Getting into her life, will not and does not, make our lives better….therefore its only purpose is not really kind in spirit in any way.

Langston

Of course most of us have yet to view this film, but for the general public, any quality documentary feature about Moms Mabley is so very needed. And that's not to suggest that Vanessa's review was negative, but there is a narrative thread that Ms. Goldberg was following. If those other "facts" were not included, they probably didn't fit. Whoopi has been developing this for years. At one point, I believe she was looking to star as Moms in a narrative feature. I think that a documentary feature actually serves her legacy the most, however, and I really look forward to seeing it when it airs on HBO.

whoopi

the reason they are not in the doc. is because they are DEAD. Clarice Taylor may have gone to find moms daughters but none of them are still living. the stories of Moms being raped according to moms sister-in law were not true. i guess you think i didnt do my homework, or that i was just gonna put stuff in true or not.
also what else did you want said about Moms being gay? what were you dying to know that you were left so bereft?

CC

"However, none of these details are mentioned in Somethin' to Tell You, which would have made for a more compelling documentary overall."

Yeah, and I want to know who came up with the words "Chitlin' Circuit" and why we still allow that phrase to go unchecked? Surely we all know chitlins, aka SHIT-ter-lings, are the funky bowels of the pig, so who among us believes our early pioneers deserves to be represented in such a deplorable fashion?

Bring me the head of the person or persons who coined that phrase so I can pimp-slap their ass. But wait, I could go to jail for that, or worst, be labeled a racist. I mean, those words had to originate from the mouth of a white person, right? Certainly everyone knows our black pioneers in the entertainment industry were some of the most talented people on this earth, so who would benefit by belittling them in an attempt to stratify themselves above their heads? Hmmmm….

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