I Got Somethin' to Tell You: Tribeca Review

I Got Something To Tell You - H 2013
Tribeca Film Festival/Getty Images
This loving documentary succeeds in its goal of bringing Moms Mabley's still relevant humor to a new generation.

Whoopi Goldberg's documentary pays homage to the trailblazing female comedian Moms Mabley.

Whoopi Goldberg pays loving homage to comedienne Moms Mabley in the documentary I Got Somethin’ to Tell You, marking her directorial debut. Shedding light on this performer who is sadly too little known to contemporary audiences, the film vividly makes clear Mabley’s influence on generations of comics.

Goldberg, who once portrayed Mabley in a solo theatrical show, is herself clearly indebted to the raspy-voiced comic who graduated from the African-American vaudeville “Chitlin Circuit” to stardom on concert stages, recordings, television and feature films. Instantly identifiable by her trademark floral housecoat and floppy hat, as well as the fact that she performed without her teeth, the performer, whose real name was Loretta Mary Aiken, enjoyed a show-business career lasting nearly a half-century.

Numerous show business figures testify to her enduring appeal, including Eddie Murphy, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Robert Klein, Kathy Griffin, Bill Cosby and Arsenio Hall, with Joan Rivers pointing out that the performer has “been lost somewhere in history.” There’s also commentary by academic figures, including one professor who compares Mabley’s storytelling to the African griot tradition.

The film frustratingly spends little time dealing with the personal life of its subject, about whose early years apparently very little is known. Other than glancing references to her being twice raped and her lesbianism, virtually no information is imparted.

Instead, Goldberg provides ample evidence of her sociological importance, such as her slyly subversive humor during the Civil Rights era, her numerous performances before the inmates of New York’s Sing Sing prison and her paving the way for the many female comedians who followed in her wake. The archival clips on display include the first film footage of her, shot in 1948, as well as clips from her appearances on such television shows as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Ed Sullivan Show and Playboy After Dark. In the latter she movingly sings her cover version of “Abraham, Martin and John” which, at age 75, made her the oldest performer to have a Top 40 hit. Also included are scenes from the 1974 big-screen comedy Amazing Grace, the only film in which she had a starring role.

Also included are hilarious excerpts from her numerous best-selling “party albums” which -- alongside those by such contemporaries as Pigmeat Markham and Redd Foxx -- became ubiquitous in American households. The audio clips are augmented by onscreen transcriptions that help compensate for the occasionally garbled delivery.

Recently acquired by HBO, I Got Somethin’ to Tell You is an obvious labor of love for its tyro filmmaker. Despite its lack of technical polish, it well succeeds in its admirable mission of bringing Mabley’s trailblazing and still relevant humor to an entirely new generation.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival
Production: Whoop, On Ho Productions, Lil’ Whoop Productions
Director/producer: Whoopi Goldberg
Director of photography: Jim Wooden
Not rated, 70 min.