Critically-acclaimed documentary ‘Mr. SOUL!’ centers around groundbreaking Black variety show, ‘SOUL!’

 By Jamel Smith

February 4, 2021 (updated)

Photo: Alex Harsley / Shoes in the Bed Productions

Melissa Haizlip is the director, writer, and producer of the award-winning documentary centered around her uncle Ellis Haizlip and his groundbreaking PBS television series, SOUL!. The public television variety show broke ground by offering an unfiltered, “undiluted Black show” to the masses in historic fashion from 1968 to 1973. The documentary Mr. SOUL! gives an intimate view into how one man’s vision, and a community of supporters, pioneered a lane of Black media that is still in effect today.

For post-Gen X’ers, this might be your first time hearing about SOUL!. Although it was cancelled in 1973, SOUL! recently penetrated the zeitgeist of modern times through the virality of a one-minute clip that appeared on Amanda Seales’ Instagram. Many might recall her viral post starring a then 28-year-old Nikki Giovanni and literary icon James Baldwin in conversation with each other. Unbeknownst to those who watched, that particular moment was captured in November 1971, as part of SOUL!’s two-hour special episode.

Poet, writer, and activist Nikki Giovanni (L) and poet Sonia Sanchez (R) on the set of SOUL!. Photo: Chester Higgins / Mr. SOUL!

That did not stop Haizlip from trying to assign her uncle’s legacy to the clip: “I tried to get in on the conversation like, ‘Hey, over here! This is actually a clip from SOUL!” To her amazement, the video clip spread through social media channels like wildfire, transferring from one Instagram account to another, and eventually building more buzz on Twitter. 

The viral moment happened in January 2019. Since then, Seales shared another clip from the episode– one around policing in America. Posted in August 2020, the clip struck a deeper tone with the social community at large, as the Black Lives Matter movement resurged around the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and Elijah McClain at the hands of police. In the 50th year of Giovanni and Baldwin’s conversation on SOUL!, the exchange between the two is still timely. 

L TO R: Director Stan Latham stands with cameraman on the set of SOUL! for Ellis Haizlip interview with filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles. Photo: Chester Higgins / Mr. SOUL!

A year prior to the viral moment, Mr. SOUL! was quietly released to limited theaters and immediate acclaim. The one-hour-and-55-minute documentary was the manifestation of a commitment she made to her uncle before he passed from cancer in 1991. “I remember looking him in the eye and he couldn’t speak. I felt like we were communing. I felt like telling him ‘your stories are safe with me. I’ve got you,’” she said. Haizlip would not revisit the idea until 2008: “I started to realize around 2008 that, inadvertently, I had become the keeper of [Ellis’s] stories, because we’d spent so much time together.” Ten years later, his stories are unearthed to the world. 

The anomalous spirit of SOUL! can be easily tethered to the equally anomalous spirit of its creator and host, Ellis Haizlip. Haizlip was a Black, queer man who famously existed outside the matrix of mainstream’s rigid portrayal of Black maleness. As a native of DC and a man of New York City, he engaged in numerous “highbrow cultural escapades,” and became a seminal figure in the Black Arts Movement. Before SOUL!, he spent his time producing shows for Alvin Ailey and James Baldwin in the States and abroad in Europe.

Host and producer of Soul!, Ellis Haizlip. Photo: Ivan Cury / Shoes in the Bed Productions

Following in her uncle’s legacy, Melissa Haizlip is a consummate artist herself. Before she embarked on her filmmaking career, she was a Broadway performer. Her transition into film stemmed from a similar trajectory with purpose. Much like her uncle, she wanted to “tell stories that were larger than her own.” 

Eager to learn the ins and outs of filmmaking in Hollywood, she worked at American Film Institute in development, while assisting on student films in her spare time. By 2008, the documentary had become the apple of her eye; she combined all of the skills she learned from her time in multiple fellowships and organizations into the making of Mr SOUL! Haizlip spoke fondly of her early support from the Black Public Media organization: “BPM came on and supported me from the beginning by giving me R&D grants, which was really important, because I was trying to build the film the way Ellis built the series– publicly.” 

Mellisa Haizlip, director, writer and producer of documentary, Mr. SOUL!.

In 1968, Ellis Haizlip was offered the opportunity to create a publicly funded show on PBS’s platform. Originally pitched as a “Black Tonight Show,” Haizlip later ordained the show as SOUL! and this show had to be “a lot deeper, jazzier, and more controversial.” On September 12, 1968, Soul! premiered on PBS as an electric show, full of firsts. Actress Novella Nelson, R&B trio Patti LaBelle and the BlueBelles, and jazz musician Billy Taylor all made their television debuts on the premiere episode. 

There is a bolded through line in Mr. SOUL! that highlights Ellis Haizlip’s generous heart and willingness to give chances to those often unexposed. Melissa Haizlip believes that is where he found his joy: “I think there was a melancholy about [Ellis]. And it was only mitigated by Black joy, and by succeeding in creating a platform for people.” At every chance he had, Ellis Haizlip offered his contemporaries the opportunity to showcase their authentic selves, talents, and tastes on a stage that he promised would be welcoming to it. 

Patti LaBelle performing on SOUL! in 1971. Photo by Chester Higgins / Mr. SOUL!

With over 100+ episodes, the groundbreaking series exposed mainstream culture to the full gamut of Blackness through art, activism, and conversation. Melissa’s documentary, Mr. SOUL! masterfully strings together those pioneering moments through archival footage of the show’s guests, including performances from Gladys Knight, Al Green, Earth, Wind & Fire, Tito Puente, Billy Preston, B.B. King, Patti LaBelle, Stevie Wonder; and poets, including The Last Poets and Sonia Sanchez; dancer, Carmen de Lavallade; and interviews with James Baldwin, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Kathleen Cleaver, and Betty Shabazz, among many others. 

In some sort of magical assemblance, they would all congregate in SOUL!’s hallowed space to bask in the magic and complexity of their shared Blackness. After time spent interviewing Melissa Haizlip, it makes sense that her uncle anchored such a magical expression of community and love. Ellis was heavily invested in community building and found love in those communities– a love that stemmed from the adoration he had for his family and vice versa.

MR. SOUL! will air on HBO Max starting August 22.

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