Mo’Nique’s new special debuted last week on Netflix. While that might seem like a fairly normal happening for a comedian these days, if you remember her history with the streaming titan, you know it’s a herculean feat.
For nearly half a decade, Mo’Nique’s name has been associated more with her public back-and-forth with Netflix than her 20-plus-years-long career as a trailblazing comedian and actor that got her in the room with them in the first place.
Amid the heat of social movements that advocated for the safety and equality of people who were not straight white men, the Baltimore native took to her Instagram in January 2018 to share that she’d come to a standstill in negotiations with Netflix about a comedy special because she felt she wasn’t being valued within the context of her track record. According to this announcement — in which she urged her supporters to boycott the streaming service — the company offered Mo’Nique a one-time payment of $500,000 for a taped standup performance over which she’d have no control or ownership.
Mo’Nique compared her $500,000 offer to the $20 million per special that Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle received, and the $11 million for Amy Schumer. Criticisms of the Academy Award winner’s audacity to place herself in the league of legends like Rock and Chappelle started to flood social media feeds and became the pressing topic of urban radio broadcasts. A year later, Mo’Nique officially sued Netflix for pay discrimination.
The passion and intensity with which Mo’Nique aired her grievances wasn’t exclusively informed by this one failed deal, but rather a history of blackballing in the industry. Around this same time, she recalled being the target of wrath from Oprah Winfrey and Lee Daniels (the director of 2009′s ”Precious,” which earned Mo’Nique her Oscar) for not falling in line with their promotional agenda or where they saw a fit for her. These were the cries of someone who feared that all they’d suffered for was going to be undermined at best and erased at worst.
It’s notable that Monique’s latest special hit Netflix a year after she and the company announced they’d settled their legal disputes outside of the courtroom. And while “My Name is Mo’Nique” could be framed as a victory lap, more than anything, it’s indicative of the statement made in the title: the comic is digging into her story so that, maybe, people who were questioning how she went about fighting for herself can take a more full-circle look at how she got here.
From early on in “My Name is Mo’Nique,” the actress introduces herself as Monique Imes of Baltimore, Maryland — a person from a complicated family whose actions and choices informed how she sees the world and responds to adversity.
She reflects on being placed in special education for behavior in middle school, and her accounting of the second she realized she’d been assigned to the class is one of the special’s funniest moments. But that punchline isn’t the final destination of the bit. What Mo’Nique sets up are two instances of conflict. One is when the class is separated by the teacher into two groups: one with all the white students who were tasked with fun activities, and the second made up exclusively of Black students, whose agenda for the day was to learn how to speak correctly (while the teacher purposely mispronounced Mo’Nique’s name as an insult). Mo’Nique stands up to the teacher and calls him out on his racism, but is punished for it. Another time, a young quiet girl in the class that stays to herself is being bullied by two other girls. Mo’Nique does what she believes is right and defends her. These seemingly unrelated stories show Mo’Nique has had this fire within since childhood. While people in the media bashed her for having performative and delusional outrage over what she perceived as being wronged, she still was willing to speak out. “I came with this motherfucking spirit. I didn’t just start no shit. I came with a spirit of motherfucking fight,” she urges in the special.
At other points during her standup, Mo’Nique goes deeper into her personal history. She depicts a typical Friday night in her family’s home: her grandmother, mother, and uncles gambling away money they didn’t have while drinking and smoking habits consumed them. Like many children, she had to piece things about life together from her observations of dysfunctional and flawed adults. Her grandmother worshipped the ground Mo’Nique walked on, but was painfully cold to her own children that were openly gay, which discouraged the comedian from being forthcoming about her own bisexuality for fear of incurring her grandma’s wrath. Her father was a drunk who cared more about chasing the bottle than any human in his life. One of her brothers went to prison for molesting a child (and admitted to molesting Mo’Nique when she was a child, too), and the other forged her signature onto documents that jeopardized her career.
This is the weight that Mo’Nique has carried on her back: teetering between when to speak out and when to keep quiet for her own survival, compounded with being an advocate for full-figured Black women in a world that is validated in its abuse, undervaluing and disregard of them.
“My Name Is Mo’Nique” has plenty of hilarious moments, but like her peers that were given deals that dwarfed her initial offer from Netflix, what she really did was present a master class in the genre, showing how to add comedic relief to an extremely uncomfortable undressing of herself.