When Ellis Haizlip, a producer of Black theater, was asked to help create a “Black Tonight Show” in the late ’60s, he nixed the idea in favor of something more original. He chose the word “soul” for the title, his white co-producer added the exclamation point, and Soul! quickly became must viewing for many Black Americans, who rarely saw themselves reflected on the small screen.
Combining clips from the show with new interviews, directors Melissa Haizlip (Ellis’ niece) and Samuel D. Pollard capture how exciting Soul! was — not just for viewers but for the artists and other cultural figures who appeared on the national showcase. For five years during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history — the days of assassinations and protests rendered here through a fresh selection of archival images — a soft-spoken intellectual brought his vision of “Black love and Black strength and Black encouragement” to public television, from the studios of New York PBS station WNET, aka Channel 13.
The clips read like a who’s who of music, dance, theater and literature, and it’s astonishing that this groundbreaking program isn’t more widely known. But as it continues its festival travels, Mr. Soul! is spreading the word; ideally, TV and theatrical exposure will take this vibrant piece of history to a larger audience.
The doc’s sharp opening recaps how the era’s only three commercial networks were celebrating the “living color” they’d brought to American living rooms as they transitioned from black-and-white. Their regular primetime lineups, of course, were all but devoid of people of color, and it would be decades before the nets moved toward any semblance of more balanced representation. But in response to the March 1968 Kerner Commission Report, which pointed to the media’s role in the nation’s racial divide, pubcasters started programming a number of socially conscious shows by and for African Americans: Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, Say Brother, Black Journal, Like It Is.
With its dynamic mix of discussion and performance, Soul! occupied a special place. It wasn’t about explaining, defending or reframing, but simply experiencing. The show aired live, with no seven-second delay. Its interviews — with the likes of Stokely Carmichael, Kathleen Cleaver, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte — were intimate and searching, its music sets unfettered, its set design and camerawork innovative (by comparison, the documentary takes a straightforward approach, letting the archival material shine).
Guests included up-and-comers as well as established artists who had never before been on TV. Dancer Carmen de Lavallade calls her appearance on the show “one of the great honors of my life.” Nick Ashford (interviewed a few months before his death) and Valerie Simpson testify that there would have been no Ashford & Simpson if Haizlip hadn’t urged the songwriting duo to perform, which they did for the first time on Soul!.
Haizlip, who produced the show with Christopher Lukas, took over hosting duties after two academics gave it a shot. Lukas affectionately recalls Haizlip’s early stumbles and awkward interjections of “right on.” The doc’s excerpts reveal that he soon evolved into an astute questioner and sensitive listener. In his quiet way, he was, in poet Felipe Luciano’s words, “the most effective, insidious revolutionary that I have ever met.”
As an undiluted forum for Black voices, Soul! was an act of political insurgency even when it was showcasing radio-friendly R&B artists like Al Green. The music clips are astounding in their breadth and immediacy. The first season opened with Patti Labelle, backed by the Bluebelles and belting out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and closed with a duet by Wilson Pickett and gospel singer Marion Williams. Haizlip shined his welcoming spotlight on jazz avant-gardists (Max Roach, Rahsaan Roland Kirk) and on uncensored poets, too.
And what could be more revolutionary than facilitating a two-hour TV special in which poet Nikki Giovanni — whose knockout readings are excerpted in the film — interviewed the ever-electrifying expat author James Baldwin? The well-chosen moments from their conversation in a London studio will make many viewers long to see the whole glorious shebang (the transcript was published as a book, A Dialogue).
Beyond the footage of Haizlip before the camera, his incisive and warmhearted words punctuate the proceedings in voiceover delivered by Blair Underwood (who also serves as exec producer). An epilogue details some of the work he went on to do after Soul! fell victim to the Nixon administration, with its deep suspicion of public broadcasting in general and aversion to anti-establishment critiques of any kind.
The filmmakers interweave pertinent biographical information throughout the documentary, but mainly they pay tribute to Haizlip, who died in 1991, by focusing on his remarkable TV project. The late Harold C. Haizlip recalls the difficulty his cousin faced as a gay teen whose religious father was a strict traditionalist. “He needed a nourishing environment rather than a critical one,” Harold says. With Soul!, Ellis Haizlip and his collaborators created precisely that: a nourishing environment, as vibrant and spirited as it was visionary.
Production company: Shoes in the Bed Productions
With: Blair Underwood, Harry Belafonte, Questlove, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Loretta Long, Alvin Poussaint, Amiri Baraka, Carmen de Lavallade, Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson, Judith Jamison, Sylvia Waters, Kathleen Cleaver, Christopher Lukas, Ivan Cury, Obba Babatunde, Felipe Luciano, Harold C. Haizlip, Abiodun Oyewole, Ronald Bell, George Faison, Melba Moore, Questlove
Directors: Melissa Haizlip, Samuel D. Pollard
Producer-screenwriter: Melissa Haizlip
Executive producer: Blair Underwood
Director of photography: Hans Charles
Editors: Giovanni P. Autran, Annukka Lilja, Blair McClendon
Composer: Robert Glasper
Venue: L.A. Film Festival (Buzz)