Muhammad Ali

Tribeca Docs Celebrate African American Icons Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley

Moma Mabley
Moms Mabley in “I Got Somethin’ To Tell You” | Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

The Tribeca Film Festival included documentaries about the lives of three African American icons – Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor, and Moms Mabley.

I have a particular connection to Muhammad Ali because we’re from the same hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. He now has a center there, which is an exquisite museum that focuses not just on his life, but also on civil rights history and humanitarianism. I love the place and visit it whenever I go back to Louisville. Also, like Ali, my mother suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, so I have always felt a certain kinship with the man.

In the documentary, “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” filmmaker Bill Siegel chooses to focus on a particular part of Ali’s history – the period when he first joined Islam and became a conscientious objector, refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. During this period, he said on television that all white people are devils, and the clip of that statement is included in the documentary.

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali in “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” | Getty Images

What disturbed me about the movie is that it showed little of the person Ali has become since that time when he was such an angry young man. Of course, time is an issue when making a film; there’s only so much you can include. But I felt that the documentary portrayed Ali too much as a racist rather than the man who later said, “Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.”

Nevertheless, “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” includes fantastic footage of Malcolm X, Ali with Martin Luther King, Ali in Africa, clips of his first heavyweight championship fight, and interviews with his brother, ex-wife, and other figures in his life. It’s an endlessly compelling story that isn’t just about Ali but about a period in American history that every kid should learn about.

Richard Pryor
Richard Pryor | Gunther – Image courtesy

The other two documentaries, “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic” and “Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ To Tell You” are equally compelling but also suffer somewhat from the need to leave out much in order to keep the running time short.

“Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic” is both a tragic and celebratory account of a man who was equal parts brilliant, brave, and self-destructive. We get some glimpses into his personal life, including the prostitution ring run by his family and the incident in which he tried to kill himself by setting himself on fire while high on cocaine.

The best parts of the documentary are the clips from his stand-up acts and films, as well as the interviews with his admirers, including Paul Mooney, Bob Newhart, Dave Chapelle, and Lily Tomlin. A couple of his ex-wives also give some insight into his demons.

I laughed plenty at Pryor’s comic moments, but you can’t help but feel sad during this documentary by Marina Zenovich, especially when you see footage of a thin Pryor, wheelchair-bound and stricken with multiple sclerosis, toward the end of his life.

Whoopi Goldberg’s directorial debut, “I Got Somethin’ To Tell You” is a love letter to Moms Mabley, a comedienne who is largely unknown by recent generations. My family loved Moms, and I remember watching her on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and other programs when I was a kid. She was sometimes a bit racy for that time period, but she was always frank and funny.

Mostly, Moms was a trailblazer for both African Americans and women. She paved the way for later artists like Goldberg. While little is known about her personal life, which apparently caused Goldberg to focus almost entirely on Mabley’s professional life in the documentary, one thing I didn’t know about her is that she was a lesbian. In the 1960’s, when she was a frequent guest on television, she would certainly have had to keep that fact under wraps.

Despite some flaws, I recommend all three of these documentaries if you have the chance to see them and are interested in their subjects. Mabley, Ali, and Pryor have all led extraordinary lives. Ali, of course, is the only one of the three who is still living, so I hope there will be more documentaries about him that proceed where “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” left off.

There are no trailers yet for “I Got Somethin’ To Tell You,” which will air on HBO, or for “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic.” You can watch Goldberg’s personal video about Mabley that she used to raise money for the project on Kickstarter, and you can watch a clip from “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” below.


One response to “Tribeca Docs Celebrate African American Icons Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley”

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