Just nominated for a leading FIVE Critics Choice Documentary Awards, including "Best Documentary Feature," "Mr. SOUL!" is a story about one of the most important and influential TV shows of a generation, and the man who put the soul in SOUL!.
,As the tagline for the film says, Ellis Haizlip - the subject of "Mr. SOUL!" - was hosting a TV program well before Oprah, or Arsenio, both of whom are considered pioneers of American television. His program, SOUL!, aired on National Educational Television (NET), a precursor to Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), from 1968 to 1973. Produced in New York, the show aired mostly in select NET markets when it began, and expanded its broadcast to over 70 markets by the time the show ended. Coming on the crest of the wave of the civil rights movement, SOUL! was quite literally the ONLY show on American TV oriented to blacks in America, featuring blacks, and produced by blacks.
It's cultural impact cannot be understated and helped launch the careers of several artists, poets and musicians, some of whom went on to what once seemed like impossible fame and stardom.
Hosted at first by Harvard psychologist Alvin Poussaint and educator Loretta Long, the show's creator, Ellis Haizlip, soon stepped in and anchored the show for the remainder of its existence (interestingly, Long left the show and took on the role of Susan on the PBS staple "Sesame Street," a role that she has inhabited now for well over 50 years). Haizlip was soft-spoken and untrained, but his "realness" resonated with Black America, as did the several acts that he brought to the forefront.
Stevie Wonder. Patti LaBelle. Gladys Knight. Al Green. Ashford and Simpson. Earth, Wind & Fire. Kool & the Gang. The Delfonics. Black Ivory, and more. These were just some of the musical performances on SOUL! over the years. The show wasn't all music, it featured poetry (some that would be controversial or would outright not be allowed on any form of TV these days), variety acts (take a young Arsenio Hall, for example) and also political figures like Muhammad Ali, Harry Belafonte and Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan, whom Haizlip - a gay man - confronted head-on about his beliefs towards homosexuals. It also provided one of the most intimate glimpses at author James Baldwin, when frequent co-host Nikki Giovanni interviewed him at length one episode from London.
The documentary does a fantastic job of celebrating the show and Haizlip, as well as telling his personal story in a non-linear way. No surprise really, as it's directed by Melissa Haizlip, Ellis's neice. Even through a modern lens, the cultural importance of SOUL! shines through. In some ways, this film is also about the importance of public, educational TV...had it not existed, there is no chance a show like SOUL! would ever see the light of day. Conversely, when the show was ended by the Nixon administration following a deliberate push to rid the airwaves of such programs, the documentary ponders what impact the show might have had, had it lasted longer than just five years.
SOUL! did more for television, more for American culture, and more for Black America in five years than arguably any other show has done given longer lifelines. It was also a phenomenon from a production standpoint.
"Mr. SOUL!" is the best kind of documentary and certainly one of the best of 2020, in that it takes an unflinching but loving look at an important part of American history, while simultaneously keeping it alive for newer generations to experience.
With the internet as our tool, SOUL! can now be easily brought into the lives of ALL modern Americans regardless of race, color or creed...a testament of true pride and a visual legacy of the black experience in America. The film is also a time capsule of sorts...discovered all these years later, and opened up to reveal a bevy of wondrous surprises, meaning, and of course, soul.
Written & Directed by Melissa Haizlip (feature-film debut).
"Mr. Soul!" is now available on various virtual screening platforms.
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