a long talk

Mo’Nique Says It Loudly

The comedy veteran’s new special is a reintroduction: “It lets you understand why I fight the way that I fight.”

Mo’Nique. Photo: John Washington Jr./Netflix
Mo’Nique. Photo: John Washington Jr./Netflix

Mo’Nique has been laughing off doubters for decades. She blossomed into an award-winning actor in spite of people who didn’t think much of her UPN sitcom The Parkers, which ran from 1999–2004. She refused to occupy the role of the demure celeb in the 2010s after winning an Academy Award for her harrowing performance in Precious, as film-industry figureheads (some of whom she considered friends) portrayed her spirit of independence as an air of insouciance. And in 2018, when she accused Netflix of courting her for a stand-up special that paid a fraction of what other comics at her level of experience were taking home and called for a boycott, some suggested that it was another instance of potentially career-ending arrogance getting in the way of work. New York City hip-hop station Power 105.1’s morning show The Breakfast Club gifted her its “Donkey of the Day” award, as co-host Charlamagne tha God acknowledged the reality of racial and gender bias in entertainment but added, “This isn’t one of those times.”

But if you’ve followed her career through the years, you know Mo’Nique always gets her lick back on a long enough time line. This week, she takes the stage for My Name Is Mo’Nique, the Netflix special that seemed like a pipe dream while the multi-hyphenate entertainer’s lawsuit against the streaming service bounced through courts, before both parties reached a settlement last summer. Dancing across the stage with the crowd chanting her name, joyful and on the verge of tears — “I’ma feel all of this right here” — Mo’Nique charts a different course from past performances, which tended to kick off by quickly putting the audience on the defensive. This time, she invites the audience to peer into corners of her world they’ve never seen before, opens up about her love life and family history, and owns all the challenges she weathered to get to the present moment, where she’s firing on all cylinders again: In February, the BET+ film The Reading ended her lengthy absence from film gigs; up next is The Deliverance, an upcoming Netflix horror film. Both were directed by Lee Daniels, the Precious director the comic and actor once accused of assisting in getting her blackballed.

A week before the debut of My Name Is Mo’Nique, I spoke with the comedian about the “sincere genuine apology” that ended her feud with Daniels, and how the Netflix special kicks off a new chapter of her career.

Around 2018, when you went public about feeling lowballed by Netflix, there was a not-so-small and not-so-quiet contingent of people who said you should’ve been happy with what was offered. How did it feel, as someone with an Oscar and a Golden Globe, with a hit TV series and successful stand-up specials, to hear people tell you to settle?
Well, if you know the history of us in a place called Hollywood, I wasn’t surprised. I heard some people say, “Oh, girl, just take it.” “Oh, I would’ve taken it.” “Oh, I would’ve handled it this way or that way.” None of those people had done what I had done, and I say that humbly. So I wasn’t surprised at the feedback, or whatever you want to call it. However, I knew that I could not flinch nor waver, and I knew that from the conversations my husband and I had. We had to stand in it.

Was there ever a point where you wondered whether you’d made your last movie?
No. There was never any uncertainty. There was never that moment, because there were too many of the ancestors on my shoulders letting me know that it was the right thing. It was never a moment that I felt like, Well, maybe I should have … No, never. Not one moment.

Dave Chappelle walked away from a lucrative deal and came back welcomed as a hero whose point of view was so important that he had to be cut a check on his own terms. When Dave said, “Don’t watch my stuff on Netflix,” it was seen as a boss move. You proposed a boycott, and the response was to name you “Donkey of the Day.” We pick and we choose who gets to be labeled a legend for not following the rules, and whose rule-breaking is just “being difficult.”
You hit it right on the head, baby. We pick and choose. Again, I have to keep saying it, because I made it my business to know the stories before me. People feel when you’re a Black person, and you’re a woman, and you’re fat, you should just be excited that they welcomed you to the party. So I understand why they pick and choose. We’ve been taught to do that — we’ve been taught to say, “If you’re not one of the beautiful people, if you’re not one of the people we pick, you should just be excited,” especially when you look like I look. I understood it.

Watching you walk out onstage at the beginning of the new hour to audio of people who counted you out, and seeing you soak in the reality that you made this work on your own terms, was really a moment. The new special feels like a reintroduction. Did you approach it differently? Did you feel like there was more at stake this time?
The title of this special is My Name Is Mo’Nique. When you sit through a blackball, when you sit through people saying what you’re worth and what you’re not and how you should’ve done things … That special, to me, speaks to everyone. It speaks to the ones that stood in my corner. It speaks to the ones that said, “I can’t believe she’s taking this fight.” It speaks to everyone. You truly understand why I could not waver.

What inspired you to open up about same-sex attraction and the generational cycles of trauma created around it in churchgoing families?
I think that introduces you to me. It lets you understand why I fight the way that I fight, especially in our community, where there are so many secrets. There are so many of us caught up in the churches, and there are so many myths. There’s so much foolishness, and my family is not exempt from it. To speak it out loud, to say it out loud … What I found out is I’m not unique, Craig. As I said to a sister I was talking to the other day, I said, “A woman in China can take a piece of this special and say, ‘I relate to that.’” What made me do it … It’s just time. It is time for us to live in freedom. So many of us are still enslaved. So many of us are still fearful. So many of us are still embarrassed. So many of us are still ashamed. Once you get to a place of freedom, you truly start living.

I think the new special really bookends your older stuff about power dynamics in relationships. In 2004, you were joking about putting the Popeyes man in his place, and now you’re talking about learning when to set aside the mantle of a boss. What’s your response to people who think you’re advocating for super-traditional 20th-century values when you talk about knowing your place as a Black man’s wife?
I remember the first time I called my husband “Daddy” publicly. People was like, “Oh my God, what is she doing?” Then there were those saying, “Baby, I understand that kind of love, that kind of reverence, that kind of honor.” I understand both sides of it.

There was a time when we were coming up … My mother made sure dinner was on the table Monday through Thursday, 6 p.m. My father never went without an ironed shirt. It was just things that I watched my mother do, and both of my parents worked. Then we went through this era of, “Well, if I work like you working, you could do the same thing I can do.” Then it became a struggle, and it became a competition in the household. I was a part of that. That’s what I knew. That’s what I witnessed.

When I started watching Oprah Winfrey … Oprah never said these words, let me be clear. Oprah Winfrey never said, “You don’t need a man.” We watched her action. We watched her talk about independence and empowerment. We watched that, and we followed that. If that’s what the most powerful Black woman is doing in this country, then that’s what we should be doing, too. We got involved in it, and we watched it, and we followed it, and then a lot of us found ourselves very lonely. We had all the power, we had all the money, but we went to bed very lonely.

So, I had to say to myself, I want something different. When I’m 80 years old, I want to sit on the porch and hold hands, and rock back and forth in a rocking chair, and watch our great-grandbabies play. That’s the happy place for me, in knowing my place. I don’t have to pee standing up, I can sit down like a lady should. If there’s a strange sound in the house in the middle of the night, I don’t have to jump up and take a flashlight. I have a man that does that. When we pull up somewhere, I don’t open up my car door. I have a man to do that.

Now, there was a time that I did all those things because I didn’t know my place. I was just worried about being the boss: I got it, I’m in control, I’m in charge. So I respond to my sweet babies with that question by saying that when you find a true, real love, you will know your place in that relationship. Do you know your place in yours, Craig?

I feel like everybody has to concede to everyone else in order to get the thing off the ground.
That’s why I just asked you. Do you know your place in your relationship?

I don’t really have a situation right now. How I’ll put it is that I related to the stuff you were saying about being a boss, because I’m not trying to do too much conceding right now in my life.
I’ll say this: When you get with that person that you’re supposed to be with, you’ll take pleasure and honor in being the best you can be for yourself and that person.

Do you ever regret being open about your family and business life to the extent that people you never met can have opinions on how your marriage and money situations are set up? Or does it just come with the territory of being a public figure?
Yeah, it just comes with it. That’s why I tell people: Babes, you got to get a thick skin for life, not just this game. You have to have a thick skin for life, because somebody’s going to always have something to say — may it be in church where they got something to say about your skirt being too short, may it be the public because now you’re in Hollywood and everybody has something to say. It just comes with life. As long as you know what it really is, you let that stuff roll off your shoulders.

How do you feel about “where comedy is” in general right now? I feel like we’re in this never-ending debate about what the comic’s mission is, and some people think the job is to shake things up and make everyone uncomfortable, while others feel like the job is just to make a lot of people laugh.
I’ve had people ask me, “Is anything off-limits?” And I’ve said, “As long as you say it with love, there’s nothing that is off-limits.” If you go on that stage and your intention is to hurt, your intention is to confuse, and your intention is to be mean, that’s a whole ’nother thing. If you are gifted, and you take your gift and you use your gift for good, you can say anything. There’s a difference between “gifted” and “talented.” There are some very talented people, and there are few gifted people. The gifted people never try to hurt, because that would be taking advantage and doing a disservice to your gift.

I think we’re in an era of papering over a lack of substance with meanness, and there’s just a lot of cool cred in saying, “Whatever that thing is that you like, I don’t like it.” People keep reminiscing about the lawlessness of jokes from 20 years ago, and yeah, 20 years ago you could get roasted out of your socks by the person onstage, but it was always obvious that real, evil, political power was the enemy. It’s a little different now. I guess I want to know if you followed the dialogue about Dave Chappelle’s jokes about the trans community, and what your take on that was.
I haven’t been following it. Of course, I’ve heard about it. As for what I think on it, I don’t. His opinions and his feelings are his opinions and his feelings. However he expresses himself on his platform is up to him. I never tell an entertainer what they should or shouldn’t say. I wouldn’t want anybody doing it to me. Those are his feelings. Those are his thoughts. If the community feels a certain way, they’ll deal with it. They ain’t quiet. They ain’t shy. They have no problem giving their opinions. They ain’t got no problem standing up — no problem at all.

I was watching The Parkers episode with Nick Cannon last week thinking about the importance of you and Countess Vaughn on TV representing for people who don’t always get to see themselves in a main character, and the importance of seeing Brandy play Moesha and Cinderella. Was there any difficulty in getting The Parkers off the ground in the beginning?
The Parkers was something that happened in the moment. It was not anything that was planned. I met with [producer] Larry Lyttle, along with the agent I had at the time. We were actually going there to pitch a talk show. Larry Lyttle looked at us and said, “Listen, I don’t want a talk show. But if this woman can act, she’ll have her own show.” Then he said, “I want to bring a young lady in here for you to meet, and if you two women get together, we’re going to create a …” Countess Vaughn came into that room, and in that moment that became my baby. Twenty-five years later, and she’s still my baby. So, to say was it hard to get off the ground? No, it wasn’t.

I feel like Black audiences immediately “got” UPN. All of a sudden, there was Moesha, Malcolm & Eddie, and The Parkers in a time when we were hungry for the depth of programming that we had in the early ’90s. This is something you could speak to: How did white audiences and industry insiders see UPN in those years? I feel like it wasn’t taken as seriously as it could’ve been outside the community.
I remember doing an interview one time years ago with a young gentleman. He was white, and he said to me, “I am such a fan of The Parkers, but I can’t let anyone know.” I said, “That’s a problem. Why are you embarrassed that you enjoy watching The Parkers, and the two women on there just happen to be Black women? Why can’t you let anyone know that?” He couldn’t answer that. What’s unfortunate is how we’re made to believe that only we will watch our shows. I’ve never met a Black person with a Nielsen box. I’m not saying we don’t have them; I’ve just never met one with them. So, when your show is coming in No. 1, you’re saying, “Who has the box? Who’s watching the box?”

I remember doing an interview in Philly one time, and the reporter just happened to be a white woman. It’s myself and Dorien Wilson. We’re sitting at the table and she says, “Let me ask you something, Mo’Nique. How does it feel to be No. 1 in Black households but No. 96 in white households?” I said, “I’ll answer that the day you ask the cast of Friends how it feels to be No. 1 in white households but No. 127 in Black households.” Then she said, “I didn’t mean to offend you.” I said, “No offense taken. You asked me a question. Now I’m asking you one. Why is our No. 1 different from their No. 1? No. 1 is No. 1. It feels damn good to be No. 1 in a community that looks just like me and says, ‘We love you, we appreciate you, and we’re going to keep tuning in.’” What I can’t allow people to do is devalue it.

You were still in litigation with Netflix when they acquired the rights to The Parkers, right?
I have no idea how that happened, so I can’t answer a question I don’t have the answer to.

This winter, people were excited about Sheryl Lee Ralph being nominated for a Golden Globe and Angela Bassett being up for an Oscar, and there’s been a lot of discussion since both awards-show upsets about Black women not getting enough acting accolades or hitting ceilings in their careers when they do win. Do you feel like things are improving painstakingly slowly, or do you feel like promises to level the playing field aren’t being followed up on right now?
I feel like y’all always ask the wrong people that question. How come no one’s ever asked the president at any of the studios? How come no one ever asks the presidents at the networks? We’re not the ones with that answer, baby. I need someone to be courageous enough to ask the presidents and the CEOs, people making the decisions, “Why is it this way, and do y’all think it’s getting better?”

How did you get from feuding with Lee Daniels to starring in his next film and having him attend the taping of your special?
A sincere, genuine apology can move things forward. And when my brother came out on that stage when I was in New York and said, “I want to apologize to you,” I knew that he meant that. I knew at that moment I had my friend back. I had my brother back. That’s how we move forward. It is as simple as that. People want to make things very complicated. Sometimes when you own it, take accountability for it, and say, “I am sorry, and let me tell you what I’m sorry for,” that’s how you move forward.

You’ve always been unafraid to take a difficult public stance. Looking back, are there situations you spoke out on that you kind of wish you left alone?
No. No. Everything I’ve had to say loudly needed to be said loudly.

Then I need to ask about D.L. Hughley. You went at him and later walked a little bit of it back. I’m curious whether you feel like you have to be overly conscious of coming off harsh?
Let me say this: Everything I said about D.L. Hughley, I meant, and I don’t take back anything that I said about D.L. Hughley. They said, “How could you attack his family?” I never attacked D.L. Hughley’s family. I never said anything about D.L. Hughley’s family. I simply reposted an interview that D.L. Hughley had. I will say this to you, Craig: I don’t have no issue with D.L. Hughley, but because D.L. Hughley was never brave enough to say, “Guys, I started this whole situation with my sister Mo’Nique. I started the whole thing” … After that we can move forward. Everything I said about D.L. Hughley, I meant that. I meant that.

I shouldn’t say “walked it back.” You offered a follow-up statement.
When his daughter got involved … I’m old enough to be that baby’s mother. And it’s like, “Baby, it was never my intention ever to hurt your feelings ever, or your sister’s feelings.” So that’s when I said, “Let me apologize, because my intention was to never hurt those babies’ feelings. But your daddy, I meant everything I said about him.”

If you had to do it over again, would you still go to bat for Roseanne Barr in the Ambien racism saga?
If I had to do it over again, I would still go to bat for my sister, because I know that woman. When people were saying that this woman was a racist, I just knew that people didn’t know. People did not understand that Roseanne Barr was the one that went to her agent and said, “If you don’t hire Black promoters for my tour, I will stop letting you guys book my tour.” People didn’t know it was Roseanne Barr in that writing room saying, “You’ve got to get more Black writers in here.” People didn’t know when Roseanne Barr came on The Mo’Nique Show. Now, there were a lot of very famous Black celebrities that would not come on The Mo’Nique Show because they thought it was BET and, “Oh, I can’t do that, my people won’t let me do that.” A woman named Roseanne showed up, and then when the cameras stopped running, that woman pulled me aside and said, “Listen, you are the real deal, baby. Don’t let them feed you shit. Don’t let them do that to you.”

Now, a racist would not do that, because she wouldn’t care nothing about this Black woman. A racist wouldn’t take the time out to say, “I’m going to come on this woman’s show.” A racist would not fight for Black promoters. A racist would not fight for Black writers. This ain’t news, because she said it, but when I talked to her personally, she said, “Mo’Nique, I thought that woman was white.” I talked to that woman personally, and there’s a lot of Black people that thought the same damn thing, okay?

Now that the show’s kind of back on the road, so to speak, can we have a Hattie McDaniel movie?
You should ask Netflix that, Craig. That’s a damn good question.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Mo’Nique Says It Loudly