During her career as a comedienne, Jackie "Moms" Mabley (1894-1975) was a true trailblazer. Debut director Whoopi Goldberg is one of the comedians who Mabley inspired. Goldberg gets many of her colleagues to speak about this inspiring woman, including Joan Rivers, Anne Meara, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. They discuss segregation, the civil rights movement and the Chitlin' Circuit, a special circuit of venues for black artists. Mabley herself is also present, in old sound recordings, illustrated by text and cutout animation, and in excerpts from movies and TV appearances. She performed with greats like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, and as a character looked "like my mother," according to comic Kathy Griffin: with a large floral-print dress and no teeth. Thanks to this harmless-looking exterior and her huge popularity, Mabley got away with sharp political criticism, was invited to the White House, and went to Sing Sing prison to perform every year. In the words of Joan Rivers, "A lady, standing up there, telling the truth." (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam)
The first black female comic to make it in the American pop-cultural mainstream — the first black female stand-up comic, possibly — Jackie "Moms" Mabley will be unknown to many today. She died in 1975, after a career that began before the First World War but was visible only to the white audience from the 1960s, when she began appearing on network variety and talk shows.
Clad in a floral housecoat, argyle socks and big shoes, with a cap pulled down on her head and her dentures left in the dressing room, speaking (by the time I saw her) in a trademark croak, Mabley was instantly memorable, a familiar strange bird: It was as if your grandmother had suddenly stepped out onto the stage of "The Ed Sullivan Show" to say things your — well, my — grandmother would never say. Much of her humor had a risqué edge, but she had a political streak as well. . . continue reading>>