We should all have the self-assurance and conviction of Mo’Nique. In the decades since her debut in the entertainment industry, the legendary comedian has always followed her own north star and spoke her mind, even when it cost her the very success she’d so diligently worked towards all her career. But life has a funny way of working itself out. It pays to stick to your guns — just ask Mo’Nique and the multi-million dollar Netflix comedy special that hit the streaming platform today.
Though she’s been performing standup on smaller stages over the past few years, My Name is Mo’Nique marks Mo’Nique’s grand return to the big time. Before she can even get her first words out, the crowd at Georgia State University's Rialto Center for the Arts is on their feet, the sound of cheers and raucous cheers filling the massive auditorium. It’s the warmest welcome a comic could ever ask for, and it’s well-deserved. Mo’Nique is back home where she belongs, front and center on the main stage.
To prepare for the show, however, she had to do a lot of heart work. This comedy special couldn’t be anything but real, and to do that, Mo’Nique knew that she had to tap into something personal that would put everything we know about her and what she’s been through into perspective. In a phone interview with Refinery29 Unbothered, Mo’Nique shares that it was advice from her husband (and manager) Sidney Hicks that helped point her in the right direction.
“I remember some years ago, my husband said to me, 'Mama, you're funny, but you haven't touched it yet,’” she tells Unbothered. “He said, ‘We know the greats. You know why we loved Richard Pryor? Because we knew him, and we felt like he belonged to us. That's a family member. To introduce the audience to you, let them know who you are.’ So this special is me saying, ‘My name is Monique, and this is who I am.’”
The show opens up with a candid admission that Mo’Nique herself never thought she’d share publicly: as a kid, she was placed in a special education class. Ever the storyteller, she describes the culture shock of her new educational environment in great detail, peppering what could be a dark anecdote with enough of her signature colorful language and exaggerated facial expressions to have the crowd in stitches. We learn that this formative moment in her childhood set the pace for much of the rest of Mo’Nique’s life, teaching her to be resilient and steadfast in the face of adversity. She’d need a strong backbone to navigate the painfully conservative community that she grew up in while holding onto a life-changing secret. She called upon it again when she broke into Hollywood and had to secure her place in an industry that was notoriously anti-Black and fatphobic. And it came in handy once more when that industry turned on her just for standing up for herself.
When I watched these Black men come for me, do you know who I had empathy for? Their wives and their daughters and their granddaughters. I couldn't take it personally, because I don't live with them and their cowardly ways.
“Y’all gotta understand the spirit I came into this world with,” Mo’Nique tells her audience passionately in the comedy special. “I came with the spirit of, if it ain’t right, bitch, fight!”
And fight she has. In 2018, Mo’Nique began an important conversation about pay disparity when shared that she’d been low-balled by Netflix after a negotiation went sour. The streamer allegedly offered her $500,000 for a comedy special, a signing number that was shockingly lower than the millions that Netflix had previously paid out to Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Amy Schumer to perform on the platform. (Schumer famously received $11 million after calling Netflix out for initially offering her less than other comics.) As a veteran in the industry with an Oscar to her name — something that most of her peers can’t claim — Mo’Nique’s compensation called for far more than what she was offered, but what she identified as “color and gender bias” blocked her. Misogynoir, the unfortunate discrimination against her dual identity as a Black person and a woman, had once again gotten in the way of her getting what she deserved.
Mo’Nique’s viral Instagram post asked her followers and fans to join her in boycotting Netflix until things were made right. The discourse that erupted from her claims was intense, with people from every part of the internet sharing their takes on Mo’Nique’s call to action. Some felt that she was perfectly justified in refusing Netflix’s offer. Others sympathized with her but couldn’t bear to part ways with their subscription. And, sadly, some criticized her for waging war with Netflix. To them, Mo’Nique’s behavior was the exact reason she’d been blackballed following her 2010 Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for Precious. By speaking so adamantly against Hollywood’s big wigs and refusing to back down, she wasn’t playing the game properly, and there were consequences for not playing by the rules. (Mo’Nique’s never been one for rules.)
As the conversation about Mo’Nique’s boycott continued, some of the loudest antagonism came from Black men in the entertainment industry who questioned her right to ask more of Netflix. Mo’Nique admits that that lack of support from the community hurt even more than being low-balled because it highlighted a culture without solidarity.
“I was disheartened to see some of our brothers going so hard [against me],” she sighs. “Dick Gregory, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Hosea Williams — there was never a time we saw these Black men ever attack a Black woman. When I watched these Black men come for me, do you know who I had empathy for? Their wives and their daughters and their granddaughters. I couldn't take it personally, because I don't live with them and their cowardly ways. I don't have to deal with you not valuing a Black woman, because I have a king that I live with. So I felt bad for the wives and the daughters connected to these men.”
Ultimately, that backlash is what ironically fueled her to go even harder. Mo’Nique says that going to war with Hollywood was never an option but a mandate, a responsibility placed on her shoulders by a higher power. As much as she did it for herself, Mo’Nique knew that by calling out the glaring inequality in the industry, she would be helping so many other women who were facing the same thing in their lives. We see it so clearly in the entertainment world, too; in almost every facet of our experience, Black women’s behavior is scrutinized and policed to suffocating extents. From Angela Bassett to Simone Biles to Megan thee Stallion, society expects us to accept scraps and punishes us for wanting more.
Not on Mo’Nique’s watch.
The ones who spoke loudly before me gave me the strength to speak this loudly. If I don't speak loudly, my babies coming after me will be afraid to speak loudly.
“People might think that all of this has just been for personal gain — and yes, pay me what I’m worth — but this fight is also for you, my sweet baby,” Mo’Nique says warmly over the phone. “The fight is for my daughter. The fight is for my granddaughter. The fight is for the babies I'll never get a chance to lay my eyes on but still belong to me. My babies come up to me in the airport or at the store and say, ‘Auntie, thank you for fighting for me.’ That just fills me up because it’s like the ancestors saying, ‘We picked right.’”
“The ones who spoke loudly before me gave me the strength to speak this loudly,” she continues. “If I don't speak loudly, my babies coming after me will be afraid to speak loudly. So when I'm talking to young sisters like you, just know that for every time I’ve raised my voice, for every time I’ve had to cuss somebody out — for every time, though I didn't know your name, I was thinking about you.”
If there’s anything that Mo’Nique wants people to take away from her special, it’s that we all have the right to be our truest, most complete selves without shame — and that we have the right to fight for that right. Standing her ground wasn’t easy for Mo’Nique, but all of the drama and controversy gave way to this present moment, where she’s experiencing the most freedom she’s ever felt in her 55 years.
“I'm a grooown woman, and I can do whatever I want,” Mo’Nique sing-songs to the tune of the underrated Beyoncé B-side. “I am happy, baby. I'm in love, and I'm loving back. I hope this chapter is until I take my last breath. This chapter is a chapter of freedom, of living unapologetically and loving who I am.”
My Name Is Mo’Nique is now streaming, only on Netflix.