Deconstructing Whoopi

by Guest Contributor SLB, originally published at Post Bourgie

I’ve never seen The Color Purple in its entirety. Oh, I’ve seen snippets here and there—enough that, if strung together sequentially, I’d have nearly 7/8 of the film before me. I’m only disclosing this because I’m fairly certain that The Color Purple will be raised in criticism of the discussion I’m about to open.

See, I’m about to talk about Whoopi Goldberg. And in my experience, no discussion of Whoopi Goldberg is ever complete without mention of her Revelatory Turn as Celie in The Color Purple. I mean… I get it. Whoopi was great as Celie and, for many, the cool points she earned as part of Spielberg’s formidable cast erased a multitude of Goldberg’s race-related “sins.”

But my earliest memories of Whoopi Goldberg have nothing to do with “Till you do right by me….” My earliest memory of Whoopi Goldberg is from an oft-forgotten ’80s gem called Jumpin’ Jack Flash. I was seven when this film emerged, probably eight when I saw it on cable. On first viewing a few thoughts ran through my head:

  1. “Is that a woman or a man?”
  2. “Oh. That’s a lady. Who is this lady and where did she come from?”
  3. “Where’d she get that goofy name?”
  4. “Why aren’t there more Black people in this movie?”
  5. “What’s up with her hair?”
  6. “Why is she always waving her hands around all wild and wide like that?”

I was naive. I didn’t know what dreadlocks were when I was eight, didn’t know that black chicks and white dudes were allowed to hook up on movie screens, didn’t know that there were ways to be feminine on celluloid that didn’t involve the wearing of dresses, cosmetics or jewelry.

Needless to say: I didn’t get Whoopi Goldberg.

Because I knew nothing of her stand-up work, I had only the study of her films (aside from The Color Purple, of course) by which to shape an opinion of her. As time went on, she continued to befuddle me—as a bookstore owner/thief surrounded by an all-White cast in Burglar, as an au pair/Mammy figure surrounded by an All-White cast in Clara’s Heart, and as a flamboyant psychic helping her two, top-billed White co-stars find romance despite the grave in Ghost. But the more befuddled I became, the more attention I paid to Whoopi when I saw her onscreen.

I simply didn’t know what to make of her. I hadn’t yet known any Black women like her, who easily navigated all-White social circles and rarely dated within their race (onscreen and off), who rarely played into the stereotypes of traditional femininity but were near-constantly romantically linked, in spite of their system-bucking.

Occasionally, as I grew up, I’d overhear adults judgmentally murmuring about her. At the height of her ’80s popularity, words like “sellout” and “Mammy” and “shuckin’ and jivin’” were always wafting out of the grown folks’ conversations at my house, but I didn’t know then what any of that was about. I’d just remember her turn as a concerned professor in the Emmy-nominated episode of A Different World, where Tisha Campbell reveals her HIV status or I’d think of her performance in the film adaptation of Sarafina! and I’d shrug.

Whoopi was “Black enough” for me.

She was a staple of my childhood and whether or not she dated white men or relied on a broader brand of physical comedy than I typically laughed at didn’t really matter. Seeing her onscreen comforted me. She seemed smart, for one. Her voice sardonic, her lips smirking, she always looked like her whole Hollywood persona was an inside joke and, someday, she’d reveal that the joke was on her detractors.

But then came the Friar’s Club Blackface Debacle of 1993. That year kind of marked a turning point in my unwavering and still somewhat unexplainable support of The Whoop. It was one thing for her to be dating that dude who played Sam on Cheers. It was another to not only cosign his Al Jolson impression but to confess to various media outlets that it was her idea.

Mind you, by 1993, I was fourteen and going through my Black Militant Awakening Phase (the result of attending Deer Park Middle, the first school and last school in my K-12 academic career that wasn’t like, 85% Black). Suggesting that your White boyfriend show up at a Friar’s Club roast in burnt cork and exaggerated lip grease while bugging his eyes was just something I couldn’t abide—the utter dopeness of Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit notwitstanding.

In the decade following, Whoopi’s approval rating constantly vascillated. For every Sister Act 2, there was a Made in America. For every Ghosts of Mississippi, there was a Corrina, Corrina.

And let’s just talk for a minute about Corrina, Corrina, shall we? In what universe was this film a good idea? What executive looked at the script for that tripe and said, “Yes. I think America would love to see Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta get it on in a period piece where, even with a degree, she has no choice but to be his domestic… in yet another rousing turn as a young child’s ever-lovin’ Mammy? And those scenes were Tina Majorino licks the little black child actress’s face and tells her she tastes like chocolate or wears her hair in unkempt ‘pickaninny-style’ plaits sounds fabulous!”

Seriously. I need to know who greenlit that film because I owe his or her doorstep a flaming bag of poo. (Turnabout is fair play.)

Around 1998, when Whoopi appeared in the screen adaptation of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, I guess I started coming around. It was one of the few times I’d seen her with an all-Black cast and I was struck by how relaxed she seemed in the role of Stella’s cancer-diagnosed BFF. Also immediately noticeable was how much Whoopi had aged in the twelve years since I’d first seen her. She was hippy and saggy and comfortable with who she was on that level few women really reach until they’re perimenopausal.

The wild gesticulations and White-man-wooing that’d mark so much of her early career sort of melted away in Stella. And suddenly, Whoopi Goldberg began to remind me of the women who’d shooed me out of their grown folks’ business all those years ago. In short: she was becoming more of a Big Momma than a Mammy, more a wisdom-laden matriarch than a “What’s wrong, Massa? We sick?” archetype.

If you think I’m reaching with the Stella example, look no forward than Whoopi’s current gig on The View. Some of the things she says, particularly things like how a vote for “government reform” implies Constitutional reform… that could extend to a re-examination of Blacks’ freedom. Pick a day, any day, to tune into The View and you’ll find that, at this point in her career, The Whoop is not only on fire, but really wouldn’t give much of a damn if she weren’t.

These days, I find myself wondering if Whoopi has been like this all along. You don’t just morph from blackface-suggesting, over-gesticulating, primarily White-male-dating mascot to pro-Black Mother Wit, do you? Can the Whoopi Goldberg who thought Corrina, Corrina was a great representation of the Black woman on the silver screen be the same Whoopi Goldberg who systematically takes Elisabeth Hasselbeck to task for her racist, sexist, partisan insinuations on the daily?

I think she can. She can and she is. If nothing else, growing up watching Whoopi Goldberg on the small and big screens prepared me to dismantle a ton of assumptions—about race, about beauty, and about accountability. She’s one of those anomalous sisters who reminds you that there’s no such thing as “Black enough,” no need to paint and pluck and plump yourself in order to be considered attractive, intelligent or desirable, and no entire group of people you can placate by fitting into the box they’ve carved for you.

Even if she puts another White dude in blackface and parades him around some stodgy gentleman’s comedy club, totally diminishing my understanding of her yet again, I’ll always be grateful to her for that.