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

by Vanessa Martinez
April 21, 2013 8:00 AM
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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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  • ALM | April 21, 2013 10:32 PMReply

    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 | April 21, 2013 5:43 PMReply

    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.

  • Vanessa Martinez | April 21, 2013 6:45 PM

    Not sure if you're addressing these questions to me. I understand your concerns. In no way would I want to have seen her sexuality "exploited". By the way, I don't see lesbianism as something shameful. Would we be asking that question if she were heterosexual? Has there been documentaries about public figures that their personal lives are not touched on as far as who their partner were and/or relationships/marriages. In most, there are, and it's not for us to exploit them. And no, it's not about knowing "who she slept with". I am actually more intrigued about her crossdressing. There is said to be some records of her performing on stage in male attire as "Jackie Mabley". So that is also part of her artistic personality.

    Was this all taboo in the 1950's? Certainly; I just thought that in a 2013 documentary that aspect of her life would have been covered, not necessarily her love life in explicit detail. Goldberg decided to focus on her character and stage persona Moms Mabley; that is her right. I just wanted to make clear that my intentions are not perverse or about "tarnishing" a reputation, just voicing my thoughts and opinions. And of course the documentary is recommended viewing, in no way shape or form am I trying to discourage that.

  • TAZ | April 21, 2013 12:53 PMReply

    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 | April 21, 2013 10:45 AMReply

    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 | April 21, 2013 9:39 AMReply

    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?

  • Vanessa Martinez | April 21, 2013 10:52 AM


    I'm not sure if this is THE Whoopi, but just in case...I didn't know Moms Mabley didn't have any living descendants, understood. In not way am I implying you didn't do your homework; I just had questions that weren't addressed in/or omitted from the documentary.

    I understand is one's choice as a filmmaker to choose what to include in one's project. Yes, I am curious about her life as a lesbian as crossdressing as a man. I definitely didn't know that her rapes were lies told by mom's sister-in-law. If so, were her children given up for adoption a lie to? If that's the case, I assume that this discovery was made after the documentary was completed.

    Overall, I wanted to know more about the pain behind the comedy. I understand it must be difficult to reconcile a whole life in one documentary, when the focus seemed to be on celebrating her life as an entertainer. Having said that I enjoyed the documentary, the footage and the commentary by entertainers. I am glad it was funded successfully, premiering at Tribeca and acquired by HBO.

  • CC | April 21, 2013 9:29 AMReply

    "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....

  • FoxCello | April 24, 2013 11:16 AM

    "Chitlin Circuit" may not be the most complimentary phrase, but in this film the person who uses it is Harry Belafonte.

  • CareyCarey | April 21, 2013 5:01 PM

    Okay TAZ, I see your point, I never thought of that... "A place where chitterlings might be served". And don't get me wrong, I've been known to dine on a wrinkle - or two. :-) Come on now, ain't no shame in my game, on Thanksgiving grandma always had a boiling pot of those fine delicacies - with spaghetti, blackeye peas, coleslaw and cornbread on the side.

    But I guess my major complaint is how the phrase is used in a negative connotation. You know, although it was a place where all the top black performers honed their skills -- when they could not perform in white establishment -- it's seldom used as a term of endearment. Instead, the food angle aside, it's frequently used to describe something "lessor-than", which does not do justice to the superior entertainment, nor the operators who gave us a chance to see OUR faces, live and in it's black beautiful color.

    But now you have me curious about that book. See, I am reminded of the word "nigger". I've always wondered about the etymology of THAT word as well. More importantly, as with "chitlin' circuit", I'm not only concerned about its origin, but how its meaning has changed over time. Yep, you know where I'm going... some folks (not all black folks) have said we should "own" the word. Yeah, some folks even use IT as a word of endearment. Go figure. And again, I can't help but believe a black man being led off a boat, did not come up with that word.

  • TAZ | April 21, 2013 12:32 PM

    Good question....I always thought we came up with that because it described the places our artists could go perform and of course, soul food was served, to include chitterlings. Also read somewhere that it was also a phrase to say they weren't eating too high off the hog....yet. Found some interesting takes on who actually coined the phrase. And I found a book I just might pick up just because, "The Chitlin Circuit: and the road to Rock n' Roll." Look up Denver D. Ferguson, Quincy Jones, borscht belt (lol), Lou Rawls. I am especially interested in Ferguson because I swear I have seen him before...and considering he died in the 40's........this means he may be in one of my grandmother's photo albums!

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