For Whoopi Goldberg, Jackie “Moms” Mabley has always been in her life. Whether she was hearing Moms’s jokes on the TV as a child or playing Moms in her one-woman show on Broadway, Goldberg seemed destined to pay Moms the ultimate respect.
Tonight, HBO will premiere Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, a documentary on the unbelievable 50-year career of the iconic comedian. But first Goldberg answers questions about who the woman was off stage; what Moms might think about Saturday Night Live’s lack of diversity; and how nearly 35 years after her death, she still inspires.
ESSENCE.com: Do you remember the first time you heard Moms Mabley?
Whoopi Goldberg: I couldn’t tell you my first introduction to Moms Mabley. I just remember as a little kid when she would come on television and we’d all be laughing. I’d see her on The Merv Griffin or Ed Sullivan Show. She was funny and she was relevant and she made me laugh.
ESSENCE.com: This is your directorial debut. What gave you the idea to do this documentary?
Goldberg: The whole thing started because I was going to do Moms Mabley on stage again, and I waited 25 years before I said, ‘Oh, I think I should do this.’ I realized a lot of people didn’t know who she was. They had heard of her but they didn’t know who she was, so I thought, “I’ll do it as a documentary.” Well, you know when ‘fools rush in’? That was me. I was a fool rushing in, chile. Because I had no I idea of what it takes to make a documentary.
ESSENCE.com: In the documentary, you have some heavy hitters in comedy: Joan Rivers, Eddie Murphy, Kathy Griffin, Bill Cosby, as well as icons such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. Plus Moms’ sister-in-law and a former Apollo dancer who shared a dressing room with her for two weeks. How did you manage to get all these great people?
Goldberg: I called them. I called like five people. Some people didn’t know much about Moms, some said ‘I really loved her,’ some said ‘I really love her but I cannot talk because I have something else going on.’ I took the people who’s adventures with her were the widest, so you’d have a nice array of people.
ESSENCE.com: Joan Rivers says that the key to being a great comedian is to get up and tell the truth. Why do you think that is?
Goldberg: Because, otherwise, people aren’t going to hook in. You have to hear something they recognize and they hook into you. Moms told the truth in a funny way. And that’s why people loved her and the material still stands up.
ESSENCE.com: There were some surprising things you discovered, such as she was gay. What else did you uncover? Did everything make the documentary?
Goldberg: Everything I found I could prove is there. There were a lot of stories about Moms. There was one where she had been raped 45 times, gave the kids up, maybe she was raped once, I couldn’t corroborate any of that—even by her sister-in-law. The stuff that I know for sure—when four people say, ‘Oh yeah, we called her Mr. Moms’ or ‘This is the first time I saw her dressed in men’s clothes’… I’d said, okay that’s true. Then [we found] the Season’s Greetings card from Mr.-F—in-Moms and she’s dressed as a man. I mean, come on! That one got me. Because it’s not like anyone said, ‘Oh, you know she was gay.’ There were rumors but no one cared about that that. It was about can you do the job and they didn’t care who she was with.
ESSENCE.com: The timing seems perfect with the 50th anniversary of some iconic moments in the Civil Rights movements. Did you plan for the documentary to come out at this time?
Goldberg: No, this is the date HBO gave me. [laughs] You know, history happens whether you plan or not. So it’s happening and we were lucky enough to have it coincide with so many things. I want to remind people–things aren’t politically correct. It’s important to remember what people were fighting for and that young people were at the forefront of making things happen, young people were marching with Martin Luther King, young people were marching on Washington, young people were at the cross of change in America. In a way, I guess I wanted this to be a reminder of what we fought for, how we did it, the various ways people used their artistry to say, hey, we’re going to make a change.
ESSENCE.com: Given all the media attention about Saturday Night Live not having a Black female voice on the show, what would Moms say about that today?
Goldberg: I would think she’d say, ‘I’ve seen this show for 24 years, where the hell has everybody been? You’ve just noticed this now, really?’ Because that’s how I feel. Where has everybody been? Nobody noticed before. To me, making a big stank that somebody hasn’t had Black people on—and there have been a couple of women of color on but it’s not as consistent—but hey where has everybody been. Kennan has been playing me on The View for as long as I’ve been on The View. What’s that, like five years? There’s nobody to play Sherri. We’ve been asking that question for a long time. So, you know, it is what it is.
ESSENCE.com: There’s footage from 1974, shortly before Moms died, where a reporter asked her what role should Black women be playing in America now? Now I ask the same to you: What role should Black women be playing in America now?
Goldberg: I’ll give you the same answer that Moms’ gave her—everybody. That is how we can make the country better. How do we stop being divisive? How do we get over the fact that the president is Black, how do we get over the fact some stuff is not going to work as smoothly as we would like it to but that’s the nature of doing something for a nation. That’s the role of Americans in America. If we can get to that, then we’ll be alright.
Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley airs tonight at 9pm ET on HBO.