Whoopi: First Female Comic Was a Lesbian

Whoopi Goldberg’s documentary on late comedian Moms Mabley can now say what was kept silent when she was doing her pioneering work — that Moms was a lesbian.

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

November 06 2013 5:00 AM ET


Mabley’s career and cultural influence cast a long shadow, extending from the 1920s until her death in 1975. She left behind over 20 albums, dozens of TV appearances and a place in music history with her cover version of the Dion-written song “Abraham, Martin, and John,” about assassinated civil rights leaders Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. At age 75, Mabley became the oldest person to have a Top 40 hit, a record that still stands.

Yet, since her death, Mabley has been all but forgotten. Even Goldberg recalls discovering that, for decades, Mabley had been the only woman doing what Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, and others would later become famous for. “How come I didn’t know this?” Goldberg said. “There isn’t anybody before her... I don’t think enough had ever been made, even when she was alive, of what she actually did, which was to be the very first female stand-up.” Goldberg was inspired to spend half a million dollars of her own money to produce the film, which celebrates Mabley’s achievements and captures comedians like Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers, and Kathy Griffin, as well as acclaimed actor Sidney Poitier, reminiscing about Mabley and her impact on their careers.

“Without the Chitlin’ Circuit, I don’t know what [black] performers would have done,” Goldberg says, acknowledging the role the circuit gave black entertainers an outlet during segregation; she hinted it might become the focus of her next documentary — “If I can get more money from American Express or someone to do a 10-part series about black entertainment.”

But for now it’s all about Mabley and the message Goldberg hopes audiences will take away from the film: “That we’re much better people than we have been telling ourselves we are. That Moms understood us as a nation and where we needed to be.”

Goldberg thinks Mabley would be thrilled with President Barack Obama’s election but disappointed in the racism that remains in our country. “Many young people are disconnected from who we are as a nation,” she says. “I think this would makeher sad... she would see all of these young people who aren’t standing up and screaming, ‘What the hell is going on?’ People sort of thought...that we had fought all of the battles we were going to fight. But we come to 2013 and we discover that some of the things that people fought against, some of the stereotypes that people fought against, are rearing their ugly heads again.” Mabley, Goldberg says, would be wondering, “‘Where are those protests that I remember?’”

“A lot of young people have no sense of history,” Goldberg continues. “No sense of history of the United States. Moms is a great magnifying glass into the past.”

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