By James Kenney
“I said Don’t Move That Train.”
When Moms Mabley commands a white conductor not to move the train on which she is holding court for a group of appreciative admirers on the platform, he harrumphs, rolls his eyes, and shakes his head in exasperated response.
But he Does Not Move That Train.
Mabley, an African-American vaudeville veteran, is quite a sight in this 1974 MGM release. Amazing Grace, directed by Stan Lathan (an important African-American director best known in the cinemas for 1980s hip-hop classic Beat Street), is an untidy, agreeable throwback that inelegantly mingles old-school unsubtle vaudeville-level race-based comedy with positive, political black-empowerment themes reflecting the growing consciousness of African-Americans in the 1970s. Bringing fried chicken on a train, Mabley corrects a polite black man who compliments her singing (“First of all, I ain’t your sister!”) and tells off the conductor while yanking her hand away when he tries to help her disembark the train at a later point (“Aww, cut me loose!”); she clearly knows her routine and runs with it.
Lathan’s direction is slapdash, but why not? Undoubtedly the job at hand was to get sufficient coverage of Mabley and fellow comedian Slappy White (as her “singin’, dancin’ gentleman friend”) and set up loose situations they can riff on, and Lathan does it competently enough. The plot, as it is, has Mabley facilitate the election of a black Mayoral candidate (played as if he’s more or less in a real movie by Moses Gunn). It’s fascinating to see broad vaudeville comics Mabley and White in a mid-1970s feature made at the height of the Blaxploitation movement, playing scenes with skillful actors like Gunn, James Karen and Rosalind Cash.
Mabley died only a year later at 81, and anyone demanding elevated moviemaking in Amazing Grace is churlish. It’s sufficient recompense to those with a sense of film history to see walk-ons by Stepin Fetchit and Oscar-winner Butterfly McQueen and watch Mabley shamble from one (admittedly not side-splitting) comic situation to another. When Mabley has a kitchen-table soliloquy with God where she says “Ain’t no White Man got No Business in No Colored Folk’s House This Time at Night” and then reassures Him that “This is your work that I’m doing, and I’ll always do your work,” it is to recognize that Mabley represented something pleasurable and strong to her target audience.
Mabley, a mother of six (including two given up for adoption) who tackled racism in her stage routines and was an open lesbian relatively early in her career, played the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” the Apollo in Harlem, and even Carnegie Hall in 1962, and had a top 40 hit with a completely serious performance of “Abraham, Martin and John” in 1968. All this suggests that her life and legacy are perhaps a bit more multifaceted and thought-provoking than what we witness in the silly Amazing Grace, although for all its narrative inanity it is essentially an optimistic rallying cry for heightened African-American political awareness; Gunn, initially a patsy being used by white power-brokers, ends up running a straight and winning campaign after Mabley mobilizes the black community to support him.
Still, I might suggest a 2014 HBO documentary about Mabley presented by Whoopi Goldberg is very much worth your attention as an introduction. But after watching it, you should indeed watch Amazing Grace, now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films, as it offers a rare snapshot of this gifted, unusual comedienne in an optimistic G-rated vehicle from a time and place ever more detached from our own.