Happiness is a Warm TV

November 18, 2013

‘Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley’ and leaves us wanting more

As a young woman, Jackie “Moms” Mabley ran away from her home in Brevard, N.C., and eventually became the highest paid entertainer of her time. A new HBO documentary tells more about her story -- but not enough.

With the terrific documentary “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley” (9 p.m. Monday, HBO), Goldberg does history a favor. She brings to life Jackie “Moms” Mabley, one of the great unsung entertainers.

Really, it’s hard to believe a character like Moms ever existed. I mean, who would think a toothless old woman dressed in a floral muu-muu with a not-matching at all top coat and wearing a floppy knit hat could be the highest paid entertainer around? That just sounds crazy.

But that just speaks to the genius of the character Mabley created, and explains why she influenced not just Goldberg, but many of the people Goldberg speaks to for the film, from Eddie Murphy (who says he patterned the grandmother he played in “The Nutty Professor” after Moms) to Kathy Griffin.

And that’s the point of Goldberg’s documentary: exploring Mabley’s influence and art, rather than her life. That’s mostly because many of the facts of her life are sketchy. She was born Loretta May Aiken in Brevard, N.C. in 1894. She ran away from home and found herself with a vaudeville team who honed her skills. It’s not clear how the Moms character came to be, but it seems it was a success almost from the start.

The film explores her ascendancy, but also her intelligence. Moms used her character to comment on the times, often making pointed statements about race and politics. She was also a trailblazer in another way; as a fellow Apollo performer points out, off stage she was known as Mr. Moms.

By the end, you’ll have a full appreciation for Moms. You’ll probably want to look up some more performances (and there are some on YouTube). But it also left me wanting more. I’d love to know how Loretta became “Moms,” whether she really did have children born from two rapes, whether any Aikens exist with stories to tell. Moms has quite a story, and Whoopi Goldberg has revealed that it’s a story that should be told in full.

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