New documentaries pay tribute to Moms Mabley and Elizabeth Taylor
On November 18, HBO premiered Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin' To Tell You, Whoopi Goldberg's debut as a filmmaker. The film, which remains available for online viewing and at HBO on demand, honors the memory of Jackie "Moms" Mabley (1894-1975), the boundary busting African American comic who kicked open doors for people like Goldberg herself.
On December 2, HBO offers another tribute. The Battle of Amfar recalls how, during the 1980s peak of the AIDS epidemic, Dr. Mathilde Krim joined forces with an unlikely ally: movie star Elizabeth Taylor. Together they responded to the government's refusal to address the AIDS crisis by founding The American Foundation For AIDS Research.
Both films are thought provoking, uplifting tributes to women who would not be silenced.
Segregation was still the American social norm when Moms Mabley began her career nearly a century ago. At a time when black women had no voice, she made sure that her voice was heard. Moms was fearless – she talked about things that "simply weren't discussed in polite society," like racism and sex. She didn't care if she made people uncomfortable.
"They called me trigger," she says in one clip. "I think that's what they said."
As early as the 1930s, Mabley commanded a salary of $10,000 a week for her appearances at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater. She occasionally appeared in male drag, and was known to have been bisexual. She was also a rape survivor. She lived with the harsh realities of racism at a time when "colored people knew their place."
No matter what hard knocks came her way, Mabley would not be silenced.
Much of Goldberg's film focuses on Mabley's third act during the 1960 and 70s. Those final years included an occasional film role and a great deal of television. Well into her seventies, her X rated humor remained intact. She appeared on the tube dressed as a cleaning woman, gleefully boasting about her sexual conquests.
There were serious moments. In the aftermath of the Kennedy and King assassinations, Mabley recorded a cover of rocker Dion's hit single Abraham, Martin and John. Mabley's version, a plaintive tribute to fallen leaders, including President Lincoln, who had done so much to advance the rights of African Americans, became the #2 recording in the country. In her trademark gravelly voice, Mabley sang Dion's lyrics from a place deep within her soul.
"She knew those guys," Goldberg says in the film. "She knew Kennedy and King."
Moms Mabley was one of a kind.
The same could be said of Elizabeth Taylor. No actress in Hollywood history had so completely remade their image as Dame Elizabeth. Known for her film roles, her tumultuous marriages, and her jaw dropping beauty, the icon stepped up to the plate and took on the AIDS fight after her close friend Rock Hudson died of the disease in 1985.
Taylor was furious. Thousands were dying, primarily gay men. The government, then led by President Ronald Reagan, barely acknowledged there was a problem. Religious leaders referred to AIDS as God's wrath against "deviants."
In a speech that can now be seen in The Battle of AMFAR, Taylor publicly accused the U.S. government of pre-meditated murder. She and Dr. Krim, a brilliant, Swiss born physician, raised funds, got research going, and turned HIV from a death sentence to a livable condition.
"I was made so aware of this huge, loud silence regarding AIDS," Taylor said. "Then I said: Bitch! Do something yourself."
The filmmakers are quick to point out that the crisis isn't over.
"I have a manageable, chronic condition, as long as I take pills every day," journalist Regan Hoffman says in the film. "Those pills are not without side effects. I would love to have a life without pills. I would love to have a life without AIDS."
"One of the reasons we wanted to make this film is to remind people," filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman told SFGN. "Especially young people who are not familiar with the early years of the AIDS crisis. As Woody Allen says in the film, there's a pervading complacency and a sense that it's all being taken care of, which is affecting behavior in all sorts of unfortunate ways. We have to acknowledge that HIV still exists, still needs to be discussed and still needs to be conquered."
Epstein and Friedman have nothing but the highest praise for Elizabeth Taylor.
"Having been around at the time, we were aware of Taylor's early and irrepressible commitment to the issue," they said. "But neither of us had seen her in action. In the film you can see her bring all her star power, her passion and her sex appeal to the fight against AIDS that is deeply moving and touching. She really did effect meaningful change in the way AIDS was perceived and addressed at a time at a time when most other public figures were silent."
Elizabeth Taylor died on March 23, 2011, at age 79. Dr. Mathilde Krim continues the fight.