Underscoring the breadth of HBO documentaries, the network’s Monday series will in the next two weeks air “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” its latest depressing commemoration of Veteran’s Day; and “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley,” a look at the groundbreaking African-American comic whose name is almost surely more familiar than her fascinating story. The former provides a reminder of the lingering toll the U.S.’ 21st-century military adventures have had on veterans, while the latter uses Mabley as a window into the history of black and female entertainers, enlisting a who’s-who of performers to share their thoughts and memories.
Produced in concert with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, “Crisis Hotline” picks up where past specials from director Ellen Goosenberg Kent like “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq” (produced by and featuring James Gandolfini) and “Wartorn” left off. It’s simple and spare, the cameras serving as silent witness as counselors try to talk down suicidal veterans, quietly agonizing as they wait for police and emergency workers to arrive, or to hear if a young man who scrawled a farewell note shows up at his mother’s house.
At 40 minutes, the project focuses exclusively on these situations, without delving into the backstories of those working at the Canandaigua, N.Y.-based facility, who have serviced a staggering 900,000 calls since 2007. Still, just living through a few of these exchanges illustrates the nerve-wracking, grueling nature of the work, and one can only imagine the psychic toll exacted upon those fielding these pleas for help.
“Moms Mabley,” meanwhile, begins with a then-seventysomething Mabley being introduced on “The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1967, which was right around the time many whites discovered her. Yet Goldberg delves back into Mabley’s colorful past, becoming a standout on the African-American performers circuit during segregation, and positively slaying audiences at the Apollo Theater.
Early aspects of Mabley’s biography remain sketchy (she was born Loretta Mary Aiken in North Carolina in the late 1890s), but Goldberg includes such material as the first known footage of her, as well as obscure recordings, capturing her vaudeville-style roots. Moreover, comics and fellow stars — including Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Eddie Murphy — share thoughts about Mabley specifically, and the way African-American talent channeled their abilities into available outlets with so many venues closed to them.
For Goldberg, Mabley’s trailblazing role is clearly personal. “Moms opened a door for women to stand up and be funny,” Goldberg says, discussing the profound effect the older woman had upon her.
Yet the documentary goes beyond mere hazy tribute, offering parallel windows into the civil-rights era and the barriers women have faced in comedy.
By that measure, while Mabley’s act might have included a recurring gag about being toothless, these divergent HBO docs, each in its own way, sink their teeth into you.