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?