Moms Mabley performs. (Getty Images/HBO)
Comedienne Moms Mabley performs. (Getty Images/HBO)

HBO’s long awaited documentary, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley premieres tonight. Produced, narrated and directed by Academy award-winning actress/comedienne Goldberg, the documentary special shines light on the life and career of one of comedy’s most groundbreaking yet underrated black female performers.

Jackie “Moms” Mabley emerged out of chitlin’ circuit stages (early 20th century) to simultaneously headline at both Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall. She often appeared as this toothless, girthy woman with a raspy voice. Her costumes were eccentric patterned grandma dresses, colorful socks and a flimsy hat.

Considered by many to be “the funniest woman in the world,” Mabley possessed a knack for telling incredible stories and often joking about dating younger men. Her stories were a combination of clever wordplay and vivid details. Mabley’s offbeat humor at its core was social commentary: taking issues of class, sexism, racial prejudice and social injustice head on.

Goldberg’s film brilliantly weaves together grainy black and white footage, news clippings and television appearances to illustrate Mabley’s unparalleled, pioneering comic genius. Mabley is portrayed as a consummate entertainer: tap dancing, releasing twenty albums and becoming the oldest woman to crack the Billboard Top 40.

Comedienne Whoopi Goldberg brings Moms Mabley's story to the screen. (Timothy White/HBO)
Comedienne Whoopi Goldberg brings Moms Mabley’s story to the screen. (Timothy White/HBO)

The challenges in Mabley’s life are briefly detailed. Born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, NC, Mabley was never sure of her actual birthdate. She was raped twice and delivered two children from those incidents.

In addition to exploring Mabley’s childhood, Goldberg celebrates Mabley’s persona in and out of the limelight. At the height of her career, Mabley was a cigarette smoking, gender bender who had open relationships with other women. She liked to gamble and often wore well-tailored suits. Mabley was so in-demand, she was also among the highest paid entertainers of her era.

Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley establishes how Mabley’s influence crosses all comedic, political, sexual and entertainment boundaries. Goldberg, early in her career, performed a tribute to Mabley, who died in 1975, as part of her act. Eddie Murphy says Mabley was the inspiration behind the grandmother in The Nutty Professor.

Goldberg and Murphy are joined by Joan Rivers, Harry Belafonte, Dick Cavett, Jerry Stiller, Kathy Griffin, Arsenio Hall, Quincy Jones, Bill Cosby, Robert Klein, Sidney Poitier, Debbie Allen and Tommy Smothers who further elaborate on Mabley’s complexity as an entertainer and comic icon.

Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley is proof that the comedienne has made a documentary that celebrates, memorializes and pays homage to the influence of black women on American comedy.

Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley airs on Nov. 18 at 9 p.m.

This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.

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