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  • Jim Bessman

'Mr. SOUL!' documentary recounts timely story of historic PBS Black arts/culture series


Mr. Soul!

As the poster says, before Oprah and Arsenio, there was Ellis Haizlip.

Haizlip, who died in 1991 at 61, is the “Mr. SOUL!” of the new documentary of the same name, about the groundbreaking weekly Black arts and politics program that he created and hosted—as America’s first Black TV host--on public television from 1968 to 1973.

Originating on New York’s flagship PBS station WNET Channel 13, it was the first nationally broadcast all-Black variety show, conceived as a “Black Tonight Show” at a time of great turmoil and social unrest.

Under Haizlip’s direction, SOUL! became a platform both for exposing cutting edge Black artists and raw political expression in the fight for social justice. Its 130 episodes starred, in performance and conversation, many of the most celebrated Black luminaries of the day, among them: Al Green, Muhammad Ali, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Cicely Tyson, James Baldwin, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, Ashford & Simpson, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, Billy Preston, The Delfonics, Bill Withers, Nikki Giovanni, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Sonia Sanchez, The Last Poets, Wilson Pickett, McCoy Tyner, Max Roach, Odetta, Kool & the Gang, Toni Morrison, Kathleen Cleaver, Betty Shabazz, Stokely Carmichael, Rev. Louis Farrakhan, George Faison, Patti LaBelle, and Roberta Flack.

As such, SOUL! was one of the first TV shows to showcase the creative and intellectual energy of the era’s Black Arts Movement, rather than focusing on images of inner-city poverty and violence then—and now—commonplace on television programming. As evidenced by Mr. SOUL!, its influence endures and still resonates, with both the Black audience it targeted and mainstream public television viewer.

Mr. SOUL!, which is currently streaming in virtual cinemas, was produced and directed by Haizlip’s niece Melissa Haizlip, an award-winning filmmaker based in New York, whose films deal with pressing social issues.

“Ellis Haizlip was my favorite uncle and babysitter and mentor growing up, and was a huge inspiration to me and many others,” Haizlip says. “I was a little girl when Uncle Ellis moved into our Upper West Side home in New York City, around the time SOUL! was born. I remember eating oatmeal at midnight with my uncle and the guest stars he would bring home after taping the show. I would bask in the glow of all these intelligent, glamorous Black people, mesmerized by my uncle’s coterie of magical friends.”

She recalls “bouncing on the knees” of the likes of James Earl Jones and Melba Moore, and playing under the dinner table with Malcolm X’s children.

“There were no structures in place to support the wives of martyrs in the Movement,” says Haizlip. “Ellis was very good friends with Malcolm, and the only one [his widow] Betty Shabazz trusted. Even now I’m friends with his daughters.”

The death of Malcolm X, she notes, “in many ways propelled the Black Arts Movement. Malcolm had left the Nation of Islam, and was forming a lot of coalitions, really looking much more globally, and connecting the struggle here with struggles for independence abroad. And the Black Arts Movement was a way of popularizing the ideas of Blackness and really exploring those ideas, and trying to define what it meant to be Black in this country, what it meant to be Black on this planet.”

In Mr. SOUL!, Haizlip combines archival footage with fresh interviews in returning her uncle’s historic achievement to up-to-the-minute relevance.

“I knew there would be two camps of eyeballs for it—those who’ve never heard of it and are blown away by the sudden discovery, and those who’ve been waiting patiently for it and don’t consider SOUL! a magical unicorn from another time period but emblematic of when they lived,” she says.

“Either way, it documents the journeys of a people, and I’m thrilled to bring it to a national audience, and even though it’s a ‘Black film’ about black artists and culture, it’s universal in its message that love and art are healing. There’s something in it for everyone—and we wanted everyone to be included.”

Mr. SOUL!, then, is not just for black audiences.

“Definitely not,” continues Haizlip, “even though Ellis was ‘a race man’—and that’s not a pejorative, but a term used to elevate the [Black] culture and not to be confused with ‘racist.’”

Her uncle, she notes, was coming out of a segregated but positive life experience in Washington, D.C., “and elevated that positivity and brought it to the theatrical stage and the national stage. He wanted to do things for the race to expand beyond the limitations of race and beyond Black culture, so everyone could share in the Black experience. So he was inclusionist: One of the tenets of Black art and music is to show we have a place in this world, and the beauty of what black artists have to offer everyone is at the core of SOUL!

In the case of the hit Motown songwriting team of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Ellis Haizlip loved their songs and demanded that they perform them on SOUL!—long before they became the hit recording duo Ashford & Simpson.

“For me it’s the most poignant sequence in the film,” Haizlip says of Ashford & Simpson’s performance of their classic “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” intercut with a contemporary interview with the couple—what would be the late Ashford’s last.

Ashford & Simpson

Valerie Simpson and Nick Ashford recall their performance on SOUL!--their first live TV public appearance as Ashford & Simpson--in Mr. SOUL! (Courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions)

“You see the incredible clip of them performing, with Ralph MacDonald on congas and background singers they brought from their church—and all of that meant something to Ellis,” says Haizlip. “He gave an entire episode to Ashford & Simpson, who weren’t married yet or dropped an album--or even performed their own songs together. But he wanted to show his ability to see the future. As Valerie said in the interview, ‘He saw something in us that we hadn’t seen in ourselves’—and thank God he did!”

The interview—and others like it—were a means for Haizlip of establishing a “modern perspective and sensibility” for a program that might otherwise seem dated for some viewers.

“It’s so easy to dismiss a film based on something from a long time ago, and we were concerned about that,” says Haizlip.

“We wanted everyone to fall in love with Ellis Haizlip and SOUL!, and didn’t want the time difference to make his story get lost. So stylistically, this feature-length documentary honors the vibrant, edgy style of the original SOUL! series: We’ve shot with two-to-five cameras, featuring the trademark bold and innovative cinematography of [award-winning cinematographer] Hans Charles. We were inspired to make Mr. SOUL! as visually dynamic and culturally radical as each original episode of SOUL!, with a soundtrack featuring original performances from SOUL! and new artists, and a score by Grammy-winning composer Robert Glasper.”

Noting that she also secured photos from great Black photographers including Gordon Parks, Chester Higgins and Alex Harsley, Haizlip adds, “We knew we had to be innovative, otherwise how would we have the right to drop in such great footage? So we needed a high budget to make it visually commensurate with the value and gorgeousness of the SOUL! archives. It had to be beautiful to match the beauty of the original.”

Haizlip, of course, recognizes that the release of Mr. SOUL! comes at a time when America is once again in the midst of race-related social upheaval.

“There’s a great racial reckoning in this nation, and we’re finally having conversations that will move forward with or without the current administration,” she says. “It’s important to have Black people in leadership roles within the media, and this film really illustrates this and is a reminder why our stories, specifically being told by our people, matter now more than ever.”

She returns to the “inclusionary” nature of her uncle’s SOUL! vision.

“We’re at an inflection point now when it comes to striking down racial inequities,” says Haizlip. “One way we can do it is by sharing arts--and they’re inclusionary: Think about SOUL!, and it’s very poignant because of the importance of what it was trying to do at a time when consciousness around Blackness was negative: to expand that consciousness, and that is what he did. He really was in the business of changing minds.”

She points to the scene in SOUL! where the poet/writer Sonia Sanchez says that Ellis Haizlip was in fact “out there every night changing people’s minds about Black folks and culture.”

“There’s beautiful classical piano music in the background, and as she’s talking we suddenly cut to an absolutely stunning Black woman playing, and it’s jarring. It’s Margaret Harris—the first African-American woman to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and 13 other cities’ orchestras. But when did anyone in the ’60s ever see a beautiful, elegant Black woman playing original classical music on television?”

SOUL! lost funding and was canceled in 1973.

“President Nixon saw the media as a liberal force, opposed to his policies and administration,” explains Haizlip.

SOUL! was broadcasting in a moment when there was, from the highest levels, hostility to liberal political expression on television. Ellis was convinced that there was a conspiracy, openly expressing to the Black media that the defunding of SOUL! was part of a larger policy to get all Black programming off the network. Although SOUL! was considered to be a resounding success, especially among its core African-American viewership, the series faced--and ultimately buckled under--pressures from the Nixon White House to defund liberal media critical of its administration. Pressure had also been exerted upon public media funding, such as the CPB [Corporation for Public Broadcasting] and the Ford Foundation, both of which were grappling with the question of editorial freedom for controversial programming.”

Mr. SOUL! the movie, meanwhile, was a finalist for the 2019 inaugural Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, which recognizes a filmmaker whose documentary uses original research and compelling narrative to tell stories that touch on some aspect of American history. It won Best Music Documentary at the 2018 International Documentary Association Awards, and has been screened at 50 festivals, receiving 16 Jury and Audience Awards for Best Documentary, and the 2019 FOCAL Award for Best Use of Archival Footage in an Entertainment Production.

But because of the pandemic, only now has it been available to the general public.

“Everything—festivals, theaters--has been closed and shut down, which has been so disheartening--not to mention what the country’s going through otherwise,” says Haizlip. “There’s been no means to show it. So we deliberately decided to partner with independent theaters and art houses—places that would want to play the film and need our support right now--in a virtual cinema release that brings the film directly to the people. It creates an opportunity for the public to support their favorite cinema--maybe a movie house down the street, or a favorite museum or cultural institution like the Gordon Parks Foundation, by supporting those institutions—and independent filmmakers like myself!”

Haizlip says that she had only three such venues to start, but 50 by the time she opened the film on Aug. 28.

“Now we have over 90—more than I could have dreamed!” she says. “It’s a really new model—as if these virtual cinemas are mini-streaming hubs—and I think Ellis would love it. We were waiting for distributors and they didn’t come because of the pandemic. But at the same time we had a film that speaks directly to the moment about Black encouragement and love and culture—and as we all know, Blacks and people of color are disproportionately affected by the virus. It would be a shame if nobody could see and experience it now—and safely at home!”

"Mr. Soul!" trailer

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