Yield, Yield, Yield: ‘Jackie’s Back’ Is Experiencing Yet Another Comeback with 20th Anniversary Praise

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Posted July 15, 2019 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
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A 20-year old comedic film featuring ‘Black-ish’ star Jenifer Lewis and a Who’s Who of stars gets a milestone anniversary celebration, plus its own comeback

jackie-washington-02Everybody, please yield!

YIELD, I said. 

Today – July 15th – is Jackie Washington Day.

What? You’ve never heard of Jackie Washington? 

Before blowing up on TV with Black-ish, supertalent and the ‘Mother of Black Hollywood’ author Jenifer Lewis made a mark in a host of box office smashes and high-octane comedy films, including this one — Jackie’s Back, a Robert Townsend-directed indie mockumentary featuring an all-star list of cameos, many of them playing themselves. There’s appearances from Taylor Dayne, Chris Rock, Tom Arnold, Liza Minnelli, Dolly Parton, Bette Midler, Ricki Lake, Bruce Vilanch, Howie Mandell, Jackie Collins, Sean Hayes, Rosie O’Donnell, David Hyde Pierce and Melissa Etheridge. There’s more. Some stars are cast as fictional characters: Whoopi Goldberg (plays Washington’s sister), Loretta Divine (plays Jackie’s out-of-control childhood friend), Patti Austin (playing a funeral singer) and Mary Wilson (who plays Jackie’s school teacher). A good number of legendary TV stars and comedians have since departed this world (Isabel Sanford, Don Cornelius, Reynaldo Rey, Johnny Brown), but provided some comic relief in some of their last appearances on film. With a stellar cast of this size, it’s possible to believe that a film of this caliber hasn’t been pulled off since. 

The premise: A superstar “pop” diva, after some falls in grace and popularity, is seeking a comeback, and gets the reality TV show treatment as they follow her around Hollywood for a highly anticipated ruckus of a “Jackie’s Back” concert. And in typical LOL parody fashion, the comedic feature almost writes itself. The jokes are fast, the shady jabs are endless, the Marc Shaiman score is full of humorous earworms (including the Jackson 5-sounding “Yield Before You Hit Me With Your Love,” “Working on My Last Nerve,” “the big ballad “Look at Me”) and the storyline — a zany script loaded with a hodgepodge of pop culture inspirations including Motown, Natalie Cole, blaxploitation films and The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous — is off the rails hysterical. And for these reasons, Jackie’s Back is being honored in hilarious fashion on its 20th anniversary this week as it also acknowledges the fictionalized Jackie Washington Day (July 15th).

Kathy Griffin, Jenifer Lewis, Loretta Divine and Brandy Norwood all pose on the red carpet at 'Jackie's Back' 20th anniversary celebration \ Photography: Nathan Hate Williams (Facebook)

Kathy Griffin, Jenifer Lewis, Loretta Divine and Brandy Norwood all pose on the red carpet at ‘Jackie’s Back’ 20th anniversary celebration \ Photography: Nathan Hate Williams (Facebook)

On this past Saturday, Lewis was flanked by a sold-out crowd at the Harmony Gold Theatre in Los Angeles and powered by stars of the infamous film (Loretta Divine, Kathy Griffin), film personnel (Robert Townsend, Marc Shaiman) among other celebrities. Event co-producer Nathan Hale Williams describes it as “star-studded, but it felt like family.” Lewis, who played Jackie Washington, suited up once again as her on-screen character, even jumping into memorable outfits and costumes worn in the original. And on top of the hilarity, the one-night-only event drew red carpet appearances from Brandy, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Sam Harris, Alec Mapa, Rodney Chester and Justin Simien.

Since its original TV run (airing on June 14, 1999) and hitting DVDs back in 2002, the film — which is mostly narrated by a compelling Edward Whatsett St. John (Tim Curry)— has grown to become a cult classic. It’s found an fresh set of legs via YouTube, where a full version uploaded only two years ago has gained over four thousand views. An official trailer has been viewed near 20,000 times. Other clips, mostly cherrypicked scenes of the favorites, have picked up hundreds of thousands in views. One scene, showing Washington in her hilarious “blaxploitation debut” Coco’s Revenge, has racked up an impressive 15,000 views by itself. It’s also been lampooned on television by way of inspiration, whether it’s gotten the credit or not. The 2005 HBO series The Comeback, starring Lisa Kudrow, was set up in similar fashion. 

Aside from the now-viral celebration of Jackie Washington Day (which is loosely based on a Lewis factoid; Kinloch, Missouri is Lewis’s real hometown), some of the film’s biggest scenes have also reaped major rewards for Lewis and the cult of personality surrounding Jackie’s Back. One scene, when Edward asks Jackie about her own inspirations, she shoots out “no one paved the way for me.” As if she’s a self-made diva, she does pay some type of homage to the “dead divas,” even some who are alive. “Billie, Ella, Shirley Bassey.” “Shirley Bassey’s alive,” St. John quickly replies. And in a mode of shock, Washington goes “Really? God bless her.” There lies the joke. And that’s because then and even now, Bassey is much of a recluse, and it’s so funny and even genius on how the gags of this mockumentary lampoon the fame and faded glory of our own realities. But immediately following that bit, Washington talks about the divas that she she claims “stole from her:” “Aretha, Whitney, Lil’ Brandy, Streisand, Diahann Carroll and BeaArthur; they all stole from me.”


WATCH: “THEY ALL STOLE FROM ME” | JACKIE’S BACK (1999)


In the very next scene, Carroll responds to Washington’s allegations with furor. But in real life, Brandy, who was not cast in the film and probably didn’t steal a damn thing from Ms. Washington, is literally now one of Lewis’s best friends. You’ve probably seen the R&B/pop singer in a number of Lewis’s hilarious viral videos, often singing with her at the piano on comical one-minute gospel-styled ditties like “In These Streets” and “But I Will If I Have To.”

There’s also ‘A Star Is Born’ actor and sensational drag queen Shangela, who once lived with Lewis. They’ve done a few projects together, mainly the YouTube scripted eposidic series Jenifer Lewis and Shangela, which is loosely based on real events. On season three of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, Shangela portrayed Lewis in the ‘Snatch Game’ celebrity impersonation challenge, doing it with wit and loads of hilarity. At times, the performance gave off Jackie Washington vibes. Shangela hosted the anniversary event, even performing in full drag with a set of choreographed dancers.

And there’s Todrick Hall, who has gone to international fame on YouTube with his flash mobs, choreography and music videos — even directing Taylor Swift’s recent video for “You Need to Calm Down.” Earlier in his rise to fame as an internet content maker, he merged comedy and theatre into his earlier Disney spoof parodies and visual albums, a style totally reminiscent of Jackie’s Back. Hall was also present at the ‘Jackie’s Back’ L.A. anniversary.

As younger generations latch themselves to the sensation that is La Washington, this film seems to be the gift that just keeps on giving. And whoever uploaded the full film on YouTube is a saint. Because people are still enjoying this cult classic to this day.


WATCH: JACKIE’S BACK (1999)


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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