Tribeca Breakdown: "Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin' to Tell You"



Born Loretta Mary Aiken in North Carolina, this documentary about the woman who would become the character Moms Mabley chronicles her rise from the black vaudeville circuit, making it big at the Apollo theater in Harlem (being the only female comic there at the time), and becoming one of the edgiest stand-up comics ever.


We’ve heard of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Bill Cosby but you never hear the name Moms Mabley that often, nor can I even recall many black female comedians. So it would make sense that the most famous one that I know of directed a film based on a trail blazer of the profession.

Whoopi Goldberg has assembled a bunch of enlightening interviews from Murphy, Cosby, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Harry Belafonte, Joanj Rivers, Arsenio Hall, Dick Cavett, Debbie Allen and more, as well as some found footage of Mabley’s act. It paints a picture of a black woman in the 1920’s who remarkably managed to have control over her own career, as well as prove points in a way that was never heavy-handed or alienated people.

The tid-bits about her are interesting, like her entire look of a large sundress, no teeth, raspy voice, and big shoes all being a calculation on her part to appear unintimidatingly sexless cause no one wanted to hear truth from a sexy woman. And the clips of her discussing politics and segregation (she comes up with hillarious scenarios where she meets the Kennedy’s and LBJ) show what a brilliant way she had of sneaking up on you with a punchline. Murphy’s story about how she was an influence on his “The Nutty Professor” movies.

Even as she found the humor in our differences and made fun of segregation, Goldberg also shows how emotionally invested she was in whatever she talked about. Her singing a rendition of “Abraham, Martin, and John”, with tears in her eyes, and unexpectedly moving, as is a stirring speech she makes in the 1974 “Amazing Grace”, seemingly written as a rallying cry to people.

Claims that she was raped twice as a young woman and that she may have been a lesbian shed a bit of light on her personally but not much. You end up wanting to know a lot more than the movie tells, or was capable of finding about her younger days. As is, Goldberg has assembled a funny and touching ode to a comedy hero that puts Mabley’s gifts to comedy front and center.