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Can We Talk About…? Divatastic Cult Classic “Jackie’s Back!”

Two decades on, the star-studded mockumentary about a forgotten soul singer's rocky comeback remains the best thing Lifetime's ever done.

Can We Talk About…? is a weekly series that is making intersectional queer history left and right.

After a decade of playing everybody’s mama in films like What’s Love Got to Do With It, Poetic Justice, and The Preacher’s Wife, Jenifer Lewis finally got the perfect vehicle for her larger-than-life talent and personality. A mockumentary in the spirit of This Is Spinal Tap, the Robert Townsend made-for-TV movie Jackie’s Back! premiered on Lifetime on June 14, 1999, and featuring Lewis as Jackie Washington, a determined diva on the comeback trail.

Lewis had the idea for Jackie’s Back! after watching the Shirley Bassey documentary Have Voice, Will Travel. Delightfully campy, with an impressive attention to detail and authenticity, her mockumentarty attracted a cavalcade of guest stars, from Rosie O’Donnell, Bette Midler, and Liza Minnelli…

…to Diahann Carroll, Kathy Griffin, and Dolly Parton.

Tim Curry plays the documentarian Edward Whatsett St. John, who follows Jackie around as she plots her return to glory. A scene-stealing Whoopi Goldberg is Jackie’s bitter sister Ethel, who lets you know that she is, in fact, not bitter.

Lewis leveraged her relationship with other divas to stack an illustrious bench. “I told Whoopi I had Bette. I told Bette I had Whoopi,” Lewis writes in her memoir, The Mother of Black Hollywood. “I told Rosie I had Bette and Whoopi. I told Loretta [Devine] I had Whoopi, Bette, and Rosie.”

Lewis claims she snagged Chris Rock “just walking across the lawn at the Beverly Hills Hotel.”

Some of Jackie’s antics were even inspired by Lewis’ own. In the film Liza shares an anecdote about Jackie’s seemingly never-ending performance one night at her home—a classic Jenifer Lewis move.

I mean, if you don’t want someone to shine don’t give ’em the spotlight.

Lifetime was a strange fit for Jackie’s Back!, as it was still known primarily for Golden Girls reruns and based-on-a-true-story melodramas about dead cheerleaders starring ’80s sitcom moms. But after shopping the script around town, Lewis struck a deal with the cable network. The movie’s eventual home may have seemed odd, but it debuted at just the right time.

The late-’90s marked an era of diva obsession, thanks to the popularity of Vh1’s Divas Live and the comebacks of iconic queens likes Whitney Houston, Madonna, Cher, and Aretha Franklin. We were at, or at least nearing, peak diva—depending on who you ask.

In Jackie’s Back!, Jackie is inaugurated into that pantheon with a fictional history that feels like it was ripped out of a salacious unauthorized biography and boasts many an archetypal diva milestone.

She goes from ’60s child stardom…

To ’70s disco-funk diva…

To vainglorious superstar…

And blaxploitation movie queen…

Then to scandal…

And arrest…

And on to a gig as a beauty infomercial guru…

To where Jackie’s Back! picks up: in her one final attempt at relevance. Along Jackie’s tumultuous journey to the top to rock bottom and then back again, she alienates a lot of folks, particularly her eldest daughter, Shaniqua (Tangie Ambrose). Her youngest, Antandra (T.V Blank), serves as Jackie’s assistant—and the setup for one of the movie’s most memorable jokes.

If you like your puns that cheap, you’ll love Jackie’s Back!. Lewis is hilarious and gets to play to the back of the house, while composer Marc Shaiman (with help from Lewis and co-screenwriter Mark Alton Brown) provides some truly inspired and catchy original songs that dabble in pop (“Yield”), disco (“Love Goddess”), funk (“Coco’s Theme”), and the quintessential diva genre, Oscar ballad (“Look at Me”).

When it premiered 20 years ago, Jackie’s Back garnered strong reviews, particularly for Lewis, but ratings were low and the Television Academy didn’t bother to take notice—a recurring theme in Lewis’ career, as she was recently snubbed yet again for her tremendous work on Black-ish.

But despite her minor splash in the summer of 1999, Jackie Washington lives on. Each July 15, fans of the movie commemorate Jackie Washington Day, and this year Lewis held a 20th anniversary celebration of Jackie’s Back! in Los Angeles hosted by her devoted drag daughter Shangela.

After finding a highly stylized life on cable television two decades ago, Jackie has managed the greatest feat any diva can achieve: She’s stuck around. In the words of the always-wise Kathy Griffin:

Check out La Washington for yourself here or here.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat