Ever hear of Ellis B. Haizlip? I hadn’t. Now I’ll never forget him. MR SOUL! an award-winning documentary about the first Black nighttime TV talk show host in America, Ellis Haizlip, who went on the air during the turbulent late 60’s with a show called SOUL! is a revelation and documents a revolution!
SOUL! which aired weekly across the country on Public Television between 1968 and 1973 featured a who’s who of legendary artists, among them Stevie Wonder, Patti Labelle, Al Green, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Kool & The Gang, Tito Puente, Wilson Pickett, Gladys Knight, Ashford & Simpson, a 16 year old Arsenio Hall, B.B. King. etc. etc. I expected to see a light-hearted variety show with a feast of rare archival performance footage. What I actually saw blew me away– all that rare archival footage but folded into a much rarer document– an explosively rich expression of Black history, an “undiluted black show” that made visible Black artists and the Black experience heretofore absent from the airwaves.
MR. SOUL! is as much about its creator as the show he created. Ellis Haizlip a laid back, out, gay African-American with roots in theater and dance, and the first Black producer at Public TV’s WNET, was the producer and host of SOUL! The show filled the void created by a media that had weaponized images of Blacks in America portraying them as impoverished, embattled, or otherwise diminished. Ellis’s prime mission for SOUL! in his words, was to “give people a chance to share in the Black experience.”
SOUL! not only featured musicians, but also poets, dancers, actors, activists. There were penetrating conversations conducted by Ellis who asked hard questions and listened even harder, clearing the way for the likes of Nikki Giovanni, Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, Cicely Tyson, Toni Morrison, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte to share their insight. It was shot in “living color” with a studio audience wrapped around the stage, engrossed in the talk, or viewed from behind, a sea of afros grooving to the music.
As a TV reporter who for decades covered the arts on TV, I was in awe of the artistry and immediacy of SOUL! –its production values, the sense of intimacy created on that set, the evocative way the dancers and musicians were shot– their performances somehow amplified, and the ability of Ellis to extract and fearlessly broadcast the truth, however angry, controversial, sexy, or ineffably joyous within the confines of the little black box and within the context of the political upheaval of the times. The show was sometimes live with no delay, and featured the most provocative artists of the day speaking the sacred and the profane bluntly to a home tv audience. A performance by “The Last Poets” is as audacious as it comes, rivaling anything I’ve ever seen on a TV talk show for righteous veracity.
Filmmaker Melissa Haizlip, also Ellis’s niece, captures the heady vibe of the show, as well as her uncle’s visionary, pure-hearted approach to channeling the Black experience through the arts to a TV audience. The documentary seamlessly toggles between newsreel footage of the revolution on the streets mirroring the equally potent revolution Ellis started on the set of SOUL! The documentary makes the best case for how the arts and a TV show can engender groundbreaking cultural change by reflecting to the community ALL of itself.
Executive-produced by Chaz Ebert and Blair Underwood (who also voices the late Ellis Haizlip) MR SOUL! is hyper-relevant viewing now as we continue our national reckoning with race via the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement. MR SOUL! is available virtually across the country and at The Brattle as part of the International Roxbury Film Festival’s Fall 2020 Screening Series. Don’t miss it.