Whoopi Goldberg, already the versatile actress-comedienne-talk-show-host-songwriter-activist, has added a director title to the list of her many talents with the debut of her first documentary "I’ve Got Somethin’ to Tell You," at the currently underway Tribeca Film Festival. The film resurrects Jackie "Moms" Mabley, the forgotten pioneer of not only comedy, but of both female and black comediennes. The film has been acquired by HBO Films, but currently has no set release date.
On Monday, April 22 the film made its world premiere at Tribeca, followed by an onstage discussion with Goldberg moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’sl David Rooney. Aong with rare performance footage, images, and audio, Mabley’s 40-year-long career is told through interviews with entertainers including Arsenio Hall, Kathy Griffin, Eddie Murphy, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Jerry Stiller and more. The oddly-dressed and toothless comic did more than make audiences laugh, she also made them think about the political issues going on in the world around them with her blunt, honest humor -- what she called "facts" over "jokes."
Goldberg kept the audience at the SVA Theatre in Chelsea laughing even after the film as she talked about the difficulties in acquiring expensive footage, Mabley’s sexuality and how Goldberg herself was the key to breaking past the surface of the film. Below are highlights from the talk.
Goldberg discusses where the idea to do a documentary on Mabley came from.
"I used to do Moms on stage with my friend Ellen, who is also in the film, she’s a director. She and I wrote a wonderful one-person show together a hundred and fifty thousand years ago in Berkeley, California and I always said eventually I wanted to do it again. Every year I would say ‘Oh I’m going to do it, I’ll do it’ then I didn’t do it and then time just flew. And a couple years ago I said ‘I’m gonna do Moms on stage’ and I realized people didn’t know who she was any more. Twenty years ago it would’ve been fresher. So I thought why don’t I do a documentary -- schmuck! -- maybe I should do a documentary and bring her back."
Goldberg looks back on the first time she watched Mabley on TV.
"I think I saw Moms on Ed Sullivan, [I was] not quite a teenager. She was odd, look at her! I mean she had no teeth! Everyone that I knew was trying to keep their teeth, she didn’t have any teeth! And she talked about things that I really didn’t understand, but I understood that my mother understood her and she dug it. She was smart enough to let me watch her. I grew up in this neighborhood [Chelsea, New York], this is the first movie theater I ever was in [SVA Theatre] when it was the Lowes. She took me to see a myriad of things all the time, so Moms, sort of being a woman that looked like other women I knew, I think she thought it was a good idea for me to watch her. I think what happened was that may be the love, my first love, hearing people tell stories because I love stories. Richard Pryor was a great storyteller, Nichols and May, the folks that I talk about in the film. But Moms was just unusual, she didn’t look like anybody else."
On the difficulties of making her first documentary.
"Little did I know what this entailed. I mean I have to say I salute documentary filmmakers because they tell these wonderful stories and they get out there and they get beat to heck. They didn’t beat me as hard but they tried. Financially I thought I was just going to freak out. Because you don’t realize that there are maybe 50 stills in this piece, they cost $1,200 apiece. So you say 'What?! Who was the last person looking for that picture?! Nobody!' And the footage, the Playboy footage, god bless Hugh Hefner because man, that footage was like $60,000. But it’s like 'For what!?' So I don’t know what folks do now. I was lucky, I worked with Kickstarter. That’s where I took [funding] because I knew once I realized what was coming that I couldn’t afford it, I couldn’t do it. And I know it seems weird, it seems weird to a lot of people. They said 'Well phh! You’re Whoopi Goldberg!' Really? Don’t you wonder why I work my ass off every day? Every day. I’ve got a family, I got a company to run. It’s one check, you know they don’t do what they used to do in the movies, so it’s really a life plan. When I explain this to people, ’Seriously I need some help,’ they said ‘Well okay.’ We asked for $65,000 and we made it and then we made an extra $10,000, which was great because we needed it.
"The most frustrating this is that when you do these things you have to go through 50 layers to find the great-great-great grandson. There was nobody, nobody! You can’t make these unless you find the people because you don’t want to get sued. It’s insane this stuff, crazy stuff! Thank god we did it because if someone wakes up and realizes they’re related to Moms and says ‘I’m gonna sue you!’ I’m covered, ready for it."
About Moms being one of the few black women on TV.
"There’s the thing: we didn’t know really until the later part of the 60s when people said ‘There’s no black people!’ We we’re like (pop! pop!) ‘What!?’ Because as long as Saturday Morning and Tarzan was on you saw some black people you know."
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