Whoopi Goldberg clearly has a lot of affection for pioneering African-American comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, and that affection comes across in her HBO documentary Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley. Goldberg’s enthusiasm and ability to pull in big-name interviewees (including Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy and Joan Rivers are the movie’s greatest strengths, but Goldberg isn’t much of a filmmaker, and she certainly isn’t a journalist, which makes her portrait of Mabley a little sketchy and incomplete.
At one point, Goldberg admits that she isn’t capable of creating a biography of Mabley, but her limitations as a filmmaker aren’t the only reason for that. The details of Mabley’s early life are unclear, and Goldberg makes only passing reference to Mabley’s parents, her upbringing and rumors that she aborted two rape-induced pregnancies as a young woman. Instead of investigating the vague stories and attempting to discover concrete answers, Goldberg pushes them aside, as she likewise does with Mabley’s homosexuality, which is dealt with only briefly and then never mentioned again.
In place of a full portrait of Mabley as a person, Goldberg focuses on her comedy, which was groundbreaking in a number of ways. Born around the turn of the 20th century, Mabley represented a concrete link between Vaudeville traditions and stand-up comedy as we know it today, and it’s fascinating to see her act develop from early song-and-dance routines to a recognizable comedic persona (the earliest performance footage of Mabley comes from 1948). Mabley also paved the way for future female and African-American comedians, and was one of a handful of African-American faces on variety shows like The Merv Griffin Show and The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s and ’70s.
All of Goldberg’s interviewees, from comedians to academics, sing Mabley’s praises, and the movie makes a strong case for her historical importance. Goldberg also includes a decent amount of Mabley’s actual performances, from her TV appearances to audio from her numerous albums. Some of the audio is accompanied by sprightly animation of Mabley (in her trademark floppy hat and house dress), but most of it is presented with accompanying onscreen text that makes it look like a cheap PowerPoint presentation. Fortunately the humor comes through nonetheless, and it’s not hard to see how Mabley’s frankness about gender and race relations was both shocking and hilarious to audiences at the time.
Some of the material comes off as a little quaint now, but that doesn’t make it any less significant. Many of Mabley’s contemporaries, with whom she shares screen time in archival footage (Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., Cab Calloway), have become icons, but her fame hasn’t been nearly as enduring (she died in 1975). Goldberg does her part to bring Mabley back to prominence, and she enlists some impressive supporters to bolster her case. Her documentary may inspire some viewers to seek out one of Mabley’s albums or to look for clips on YouTube, but it doesn’t do much to foster understanding of the woman behind the jokes.