Why Whoopi Goldberg wants you to meet Moms Mabley

"Whoopi Goldberg presents Moms Mabley" premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO. Credit: Timothy White/ Courtesy of HBO
“Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley” premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Credit: HBO

Even Whoopi Goldberg needs a little money help sometimes.

The Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner ran into trouble funding her documentary “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley,” a 71-minute look at the life of comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley. So she did what 21st-century filmmakers short on funding have done: She turned to Kickstarter.

“People were like, ‘Why do you need this?’ It’s like, what do you think I do for a living? I work every day. I mean, you’d think that I’m swimming in dough, but it doesn’t work that way,” Goldberg says. “I had a couple of those conversations with folks, and then people went, ‘Oh, you’re really serious about it.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, do you think I would expose myself to you like this?’”

After the initial surprise of her fundraising efforts wore off, Goldberg says donors “lost their minds and just gave and gave and gave.” And she’s grateful for that outpouring, because with the money she was able to hire the type of editor who would benefit the film most.

“Mabley” is a labor of love for the 57-year-old star, who says she had wanted to make a film about the comedian “for quite some time.” She says she used to impersonate Mabley, known for her commentary on race and other taboo topics, on stage early in her own career as a comedian. But years later, when Goldberg wanted to reprise the role on stage, she realized her audience didn’t know the trailblazing comedian.

“Folks of a certain age remember her but don’t know a lot about her,” Goldberg says. “But [younger] folks don’t know about Moms because all the places that you would have seen her now have disappeared, like ['The Ed Sullivan Show.'] You don’t have a lot of outlets where you can see comics and folks that spin plates. You have ‘America’s Got Talent’ but those are talent shows — these were professionals.”

With a movie on Mabley under her belt, Goldberg next hopes to bring to light stories of other black artists whose works may have eluded the public.

“One of the things that you discover when you’re looking for black performers is there’s just not a lot of information out there,” she says. “There wasn’t anyone documenting any of it, and no one has done the full Ken Burns rendition of black people in America as a documentary. So that’s what I think the next thing I want to do is, so that the next person who’s maybe looking for someone like Peg Leg Bates can go to one of those documentaries that I’m hoping we get to do and say, ‘Oh, here’s some information I can use.’”

Famous friends

Comedians like Kathy Griffin, Eddie Murphy and Joan Rivers all appear on camera, singing their praises of Mabley. Goldberg says that industry pals of hers were at first a bit hesitant to speak on the comedian, but that once they opened up “you couldn’t stop them from talking.”

“One of my favorites is Sidney Poitier,” the documentarian says. “We see Sidney talk about coming from the island, coming to Harlem and not really understanding what Moms was talking about when he saw her, but he felt like he was comfortable with her. Even though he didn’t really get what she was saying, he recognized her in his soul as being like the woman he knew from the island he had come from. You would never think of things like that or how people see you. She was very influential on a lot of people and it knocked me out to discover it.”


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