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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On how Mabley is left out of the conversation about women pioneers of comedy.
“When I discovered that she was the first and only for 40 years before anybody else shows up, I thought ‘How come I didn’t know this? Why is there no Moms Mabley Award for comedy?’ (to much applause). To have lost this, and I include myself, seems a real shame. It’s insane because we all thought we knew and as it turns out very few of us did. But maybe the adults did. The first time I came across that card with her as Mr. Moms I was like ‘What the!’ How come nobody talked about this? They didn’t talk about it because it didn’t matter, it had nothing to do with her comedy and no one was interested in her personal life. Yeah (she says to cheers in the audience), remember that? I’m just saying.”
Goldberg discusses Mabley’s sexuality and the lack of public knowledge about it.
“If people start to say ‘How is that possible?’ just think Rock Hudson, because I know many of you were shocked as hell when you found out Rock was gay! Folks took care of each other they looked after you because you would keep your job and they would keep working. It was a whole other groove, it wasn’t this everybody’s-gotta-know-everything-about-your-business, it just wasn’t like that. She was a great comic and being gay had nothing to do with it.
“The first time I came across that postcard of ‘Seasons Greetings From Mr. Moms’ and she’s dressed as a man, it was pretty clear! I was like ‘What the! How come nobody talked about this?’ They didn’t talk about it because it didn’t matter, it had nothing to do with her comedy and no one was interested in her personal life. They were talking about how funny she was, always. I kind of like that, that people got to have their life.
On why Mabley disappeared from the popular history of comedy.
“It wasn’t a race or gender thing, it was just time. Unless someone is talking about you you’re dead. People die when you don’t remember them. Now she’s been a little bit resurrected in your minds and maybe other people’s.
“This is a black woman, rolling around America telling jokes. Nobody chronicled this, because you know they weren’t chronicling us [black people] then, they just didn’t do it. We know everything about Gracie Allen and George Burns and they were magnificent comics, but we know nothing about Moms because the material is not there.”
Goldberg reveals the most difficult part of the film to nail.
“It’s going to sound a little odd, but they key was me. I had not planned to be in the film, because you never see the filmmaker in these documentaries. Then suddenly I thought, ‘I think I have to be in this,’ sort of explain and be that explanation through. I think I had to unlock it or it would’ve just been on the surface.”
On getting all the comedians, actors and entertainers in the film involved.
“These were all people I knew, which made it easier. But the most fascinating for me was Sidney. You’re used to Sidney Poitier being Sidney Poitier and you never think of Sidney arriving in America and coming from the islands and totally into the Apollo. One of my favorite things he talked about [in the film] is he said, ‘I couldn’t really figure out things they were talking about [at the Apollo], but they looked like family so I was comfortable.’ The impact that Moms had was far-reaching in terms of entertainment, that she was able to grab Sidney who had just arrived, or she was able to grab Jerry Stiller and Brooklyn, was kind of phenomenal. Kathy Griffin said it that she was able to reach through the television and say ‘Yeah, you know me!’ It’s kind of amazing because when we think about black-white relationships we never talk about this, that we are one people, that regardless of what the media says we really are just one. When we’re hungry, we’re hungry. White people will feed you just as much as black people will feed you, Asian people; poor folks will take care of each other. Rich people, I’m not too sure about that, but poor people will always feed you.”