The Unfiltered Blackness of Mr. Soul! by Matthew Allen
April 28, 2018
The Unfiltered Blackness of Mr. Soul!
Documentary on Groundbreaking PBS show & Its Producer Hits Tribeca
By Matthew Allen
The viewing experience of Mr. Soul! the documentary is similar to when one watches its source material, Soul!, the TV show; enlightening, exhilarating, entertaining and exercising. It starts with an old-fashioned tube television, transplanting you into the 1960s. Then, you hear a matter-of-fact toned voice over: Today, whites have every hour of programming on television. Blacks have none. From the jump, you know whats going down. You know the backdrop, and it gives the viewer the perspective they need to fully grasp the gravity of the information that they are about to uncover. The film illustrates that during this time, the only occasions when Black folks where seen on TV, it was on the evening news during a problematic situation. Enter Ellis Haizlip, a rising theater maven in New York City. A man who was an integral part in Black Broadway shows like Dark of the Moon, The Amen Corner and Trumpets of the Lord. Partnering with WDNT producer Christopher Lukas, they conceived, what Lukas coined, a Black Tonight Show. The rest is history. History that, somehow, has become virtually, and nearly literally, erased from public consciousness. Until now.
The film was produced & co-directed by Haizlips niece, filmmaker Melissa Haizlip, who worked over 10 years and a Kickstarter campaign to get this project created. Melissa and co-director Samuel Pollard secured interview accounts from many of those who were there, from Actor/Activist Harry Belonfonte, former host Dr. Loretta Long, poet/playwright Amiri Baraka, poet Nikki Giovanni, and others, with the appearance of each prompted applause from the audience. This was especially spirited with Ellis’ image came on-screen. All of them spoke of Haizlip’s clarivoyant producer prowess. “He could see you in places you couldn’t see yourself,” poet Sonia Sanchez stated in the film. She also spoke, with delight, of Haizlip’s “seditious nature.” He knew he was pushing buttons and boundaries with unfiltered Blackness that had never been witnessed, and that it would cause folks to quesiton and challenge the oppressive ideals the stereotypes that plagued the African-American community for centuries.
For instance, Ellis and Dr. Long were hosting the first live telecast of Soul!, and it featured an incendiary performance by The Last Poets and their piece, “Die Nigger Die.” Just uttering the title, the audience saw how much Haizlip had even shocked himself, and they laughed uproariously. Later, Haizlip interviewed a young Minister Farrakhan and took him to task, respectfully, about his homophobic beliefs when it came to recruitment into the Nation of Islam. The sight of Black dancers performing a George Faison choreographed piece adjacent to 22-year-old Stevie Wonder playing “You and I” was incredibly moving, and yet seemed just as defiant as the aforementioned episodes.
Mr. Soul! Trailer
Haizlip made it his business to fuse disciplines together and give the audience an experience that they could see themselves in, take pride in. “Ellis knew for a fact that Black culture was not monolithic,” Melissa replied in regards to Ellis’ vision of Soul!’s presentation. “There were many complexities and layers to Black culture and that the arts were simply an expression of all those layers; expressions of radical poetry or dance or art or music were all part of the layered versions of who we are; the pastiche or quilt of what makes up the African-America diaspora.”
Bringing together all the archival footage and the interviews were voice-over testimonials; narration of the channeled spirit of Ellis Haizlip, who died in 1991. Actor Blair Underwood performed the narration, using a curated backlog of Haizlips quotes from interviews before, during and after Soul!s run. Although we had a tremendous group of interviews and voices that were telling Ellis’ story, we weren’t actually hearing Ellis as a person out front,” Melissa stated. “Why don’t we make a through-line for Ellis in which he is fully engaged every step of the moment of these fives years of Soul!? So, we decided to create these little voice-over pods in which he emerged with his thesis on R&B, music, Black culture, his vision for the show.”
Mr. Soul! gives you exactly what you need to know about the origins of the show, its ingredients, its impact and its aftermath. And yet, the real magic trick is that although you know such much about Soul!, it leaves you wanting more. Its a fourth dimensional metaphor for the void it left on its audience and to Black culture, at large when it was cancelled. An interesting, and unfortunate, parallel materialized toward the end of the documentary. The Richard Nixon Administration was responsible for the suppression of Soul!, as they were threatened by the Black unity and enlightenment that Soul! was ushering in. Shades of that can be seen today, with the Trump Administration proposing to defund the Corporation of Public Broadcast (which houses PBS), the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities. All the while, Black culture is suffering from the stereotypes and disassociation from free thinking and knowledge of self via artistic expression and media outlets that led to a show like Soul! being necessary in the first place.
Blair Underrwood and Melissa Haizlip discuss Mr. Soul! at Tribeca Film Festival 2018
A shocking component in the film was an actual audio recording of a meeting of Nixon and officials in the Oval Office speaking of removing pro-Black television programming. Melissa Haizlip even went as far as requesting files from the FBI to see if the Bureau had a file on her uncle. “The idea of re-imagining one’s self as a free man with a free mind was absolutely threatening, and that was pervasive of all the pushback of all of the Black Power movement,” Melissa stated. I think that there is a cycle that happens and after so much goodness from President [Obama], theres a backlash and theres fear. The film ended with a poignant quote from Ellis Haizlip that summed up him making piece with its demise, despite plea’s via ten’s of thousands of support letters, and even a proposition from Last Poet member Felipe Luciano to assemble a crew of activists, ex-gangs to march in on PBS and government headquarters. “Sometimes it’s necessary, for the evolution of things, to disappear.”
Following the screening, Underwood appeared before the audience to lead, what Melissa called, an on the spot “re imaging of an episode of Soul!,” featuring film scorer Robert Glasper, Ben Williams Marcus Machado and a reunited Last Poets, poetry from Sonia Sanchez, a gorgeouos recreation of the infamous “You and I” moment with vocalist Muhammad Ayers and the movie’s theme, “Show Me Your Soul,” sung by Lalah Hathaway (written by Glasper and Ayers). It was not only an amazing end to a world premiere, but another reason to spout why a show like Soul! is still necessary in today’s climate. As a fan wrote to Ellis in response to the show’s impending cancellation, “There is no alternative to Soul!”
Robert Glasper performs at Mr. Soul! Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival 2018.
Check out this full episode of Soul featuring The Jimmy Castor Bunch: