I had a pretty amazing comedy-themed Labor Day Weekend. Setting the table was the closing night of the Black Harvest film festival, featuring a preview of Whoopi Goldberg’s Kickstarted Moms Mabley documentary, I Got Something to Tell You, which will be on HBO November 14.
Goldberg, who once did a Mabley tribute show, does a wonderful job creating not so much a portrait, but a satisfying survey/appreciation of one of the greatest stand up comics in American history. Because the Mabley character was a coy construct and she did not break character in interviews, there is really not enough available material to present a true biography of Mabley a/k/a/ Loretta Mary Aiken, who (like Grandpa Jones of Hee Haw fame) was playing an elderly person from her youth and aged into the image.
And because, other than a few race movies, footage of Mabley is mostly from the last few years of her life when the presumed septuagenarian (her birth date is disputed) found a new audience on talk and variety shows in the late 60s and early 70s, Goldberg had to devise clever methods to play material from her excellent 60s LPs (with animation or animated text on the screen as the records spun), or have comics who came up in the 60s and 70s discuss her impact.
Though not a problem exactly, what this does is skew the focus to her late standup career, when I personally want to know more about her vaudeville/minstrel circuit/Broadway career in the twenties and thirties.
When Goldberg, as narrator, gives Mabley props for co-writing a show with Zora Neale Hurston and then doesn’t follow it up (I know she and Hurston played cheerleaders in a skit where Tim “Kingfish” Moore was a footballer, but not much more than that), it’s a bit of a tease. This is made more frustrating by the few interviews with survivors of that era revealing genuinely fascinating snippets of info about Mabley’s personal life (her offstage life as “Mr. Moms,” for example).
Goldberg, however, doesn’t let the gaps in Mabley’s history serve as pit traps, instead focusing on her material, particularly the bold political content of her humorous, scathing, critiques on American racism.
Though she dressed in a house coat and funny hat, took out her dentures, and spoke in a relaxed, stammering drawl (perfect for lengthy raconteuring, though not always the best for sound bites, as this film demonstrates), she seemed safe and harmless, but her jokes about the absurdity of segregation, lynching, and racial epithets are all the more powerful because this sharp commentary is coming from an unexpected spokesperson.
The comics and scholars interviewed who provide context and commentary include Cosby, Arsenio, Kathy Griffin, Bambi Haggins, Robert Klein (interviewed on the Apollo stage [?]), and a rare Eddie Murphy talking head (though his explanation of his elderly female Klump character being a Mabley impersonation demonstrates a coarse misunderstanding of Mabley’s bold take on female sexuality).
But most impressive is the way the deft editing of the sparse Mabley film footage advocates for her genius.
Her earnest singing tribute to her slain friends MLK and Jack and Bobby Kennedy has been presented as a novelty record over the years, and seeing her perform it on Hugh Hefner’s TV show with Barbi Benton, Sammy Davis Jr, Paul Mooney, and various Playmates paying rapt attention, could also be presented as silly or absurd. But here we see it as the artistic, soulful triumph it really was.
And her terrible movie Amazing Grace is reduced to one scene of pleading oration that is presented as improvised, honest, and vital.
In our house Mabley’s records get a lot of spins, so I hesitate to call her a forgotten figure, but for the countless folks who don’t know how awesome Moms was, this is a vital work.