The HBO documentary Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley takes a kaleidoscopic look at a groundbreaking comedian from her most famous admirer. This project has a dual-edged appeal: like Whoopi? Dig, and learn about a captivating personality who's faded over time. Like Moms? Well, just close your eyes and plug your ears during Whoopi's parts and try to enjoy. Whoopi's own thoughts (lots and lots of thoughts) on how Jackie "Moms" Mabley impacted her life are supplemented with recollections from Arsenio Hall, Kathy Griffin, Joan Rivers, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Eddie Murphy and a host of others.
A vigorous trouper who didn't find mainstream success until well into her sixties, Moms Mabley specialized in a character-driven, brutally honest style of comedy which bridged vaudeville and the sassing insult humor of more recent programs like Def Comedy Jam. Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley uses the image most of us have of Mabley - the toothless, floppy-hatted saucy old lady from '60s talk and variety television - as a springboard for going off in several different (mostly interesting) directions, combining biography, academic analysis and celeb adulation. It's at its best when dealing with Mabley's pre-fame life, including a shady youth filled with abuse and a few unwanted pregnancies, honing her comedic chops traveling with a vaudeville team called Butterbeans & Susie, and becoming a sensation with the notoriously fickle audience at Harlem's Apollo Theater in the 1930s and '40s. Actually, this segment is the most fascinating, since it offers rare footage of Mabley early on in her act (the "Moms" persona is evident, albeit rougher - and she still has her teeth). It also reveals that Mabley was an out lesbian often seen in man-tailored suits (even in her publicity photos) - a trailblazer in more ways than one.
Mabley's significance in the Civil Rights Era is another thing Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley does well. She spoke as bluntly about race, sex and inequality as her contemporaries in African-American comedy, yet the lovable "Moms" getup had the dual effect of allowing her to say razor-sharp, still surprisingly potent stuff while attracting a wide, mainstream audience. Her television appearances were basic variants on the neglected-wife routines of fellow comediennes like Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, while the edgiest material in her act was reserved for standup audiences (preserved on her best-selling comedy albums, which are excerpted here with animated visuals). The documentary does a good job of showing how Mabley used comedy to expose the pain of her race. No wonder she was such a hit with prisoners - plain and simple, she was a badass.
Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley is as much about the host's interest in the subject as the subject itself - and that's the problem. As the doc's director, co-producer, and onscreen guide, Whoopi's got her fingerprints all over this thing. She is shown personally interviewing many (but not all) of the participants, doing voice-overs where she isn't seen, and - most annoyingly - ruminating to an offscreen presence about Mabley's importance in staged setups. Whoopi claims to have done this documentary as a learning experience for herself, but her constant onscreen presence only reveals how fake (and unwittingly egotistical) she ultimately appears. Had Moms Mabley been around to see this, one can't help but imagine that she'd give Whoopi a good tongue-lashing for hijacking an otherwise heartfelt tribute.
The digitally shot 16:9 widescreen image on HBO's DVD edition of Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley looks satisfactory with crisp, detailed photography, good light/dark levels and lifelike color. The doc's archival clips vary in quality, but at least they are included in proper 4:3 aspect ratio with no cropping.
The English-language 2.0 Stereo soundtrack is a better-than-average mix with a good balance between dialogue and music. No other audio or subtitle options are provided on this no-frills release.
Bonus interviews? A commentary from Whoopi? Mabley's missing dentures? Nope, nothing.
Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley is a loving, star-studded tribute to the iconic, transgressive African-American comedienne who kept America in stitches during the turbulent '60s. As fascinating as this bio/love-fest was, it would have been a more fulfilling effort with less Whoopi, more Moms. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.