Mr. Soul!, a documentary about a cable access show that put a spotlight on Black culture in the national nadir of the late 1960s and early ’70s, is a spiritual balm for these times. Not just because it shows the breadth of Black imagination and intelligence, but because it shows our current national tumult is not unique or insurmountable. As writer James Baldwin tells poet Nikki Giovanni in the film, “[Black people] have survived the roughest game in the world … and if we can get this far, we can get further.”
“Soul!” was a New York City-based PBS show centered on the fullness of Black American life: dance, poetry, literature, music, religion, politics — which co-creator and host Ellis Haizlip referred to as “undiluted Blackness.” This was, literally, a radical move when the show started in 1968.
“Soul!” unveiled itself in the shadow of the Vietnam War and in the wake of the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In a TV landscape that largely had no place for African Americans who weren’t servants or buffoons, “Soul!” celebrated Black culture. As Haizlip says, in narration performed by actor Blair Underwood, “We are as proud of our militants as we are of the religious element, and the ‘Soul!’ show will reflect that pride.”
Written, directed and produced by Haizlip’s niece Melissa Haizlip (Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop), the documentary doesn’t break any ground in presenting the story of this groundbreaking show. We get talking heads, photos, clips, talking heads, more clips.
But, wow — those clips! They’re extraordinary, especially the live performances by powerful artists like Patti LaBelle, Al Green, The Last Poets, Alvin Ailey dancers and a married songwriting couple, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who had never sung in a public venue and never planned to until tapped by Ellis Haizlip. Ashford died in 2011, but as Ashford & Simpson, the Motown power duo wrote and/or produced all but one of the late-’60s singles by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
Ashford & Simpson say that no one would have heard of them without Haizlip’s belief that they could not only write but also perform. He did that for hundreds of people, and as a result, the show was a cultural feast. And Haizlip’s production staff comprised mostly women at a time when women, especially Black women, were sidelined in most workplaces.
Haizlip wasn’t Johnny Carson. He was there to spotlight Black culture, not be a star. And this commitment may be why the documentary’s storytelling falls short in a significant area: There’s not enough “mister” in Mr. Soul!
Granted, “Soul!” wasn’t about Haizlip, but this film should have been more so. We do get some of his background: He was one of four siblings growing up in Washington, D.C., with a loving mother and a sternly religious father who would not, according to Haizlip’s cousin Harold, accept that Ellis was gay.
But we don’t see what Haizlip’s life was like away from the set or why he didn’t fight harder to keep the show from being canceled in 1973, when President Nixon set his sights on hobbling PBS. “How do we get at this without saying we’re trying to kick Bill Moyers and some Black off the damn air?” Nixon says to Cabinet members in office recordings.
Haizlip, who died in 1991 at age 61, simply let “Soul!” go gently into that good night. Even as others desperately wanted to hold fast, he was frustratingly content to move on. “Although it’s over, it’s not the end,” he says in the final show. “Black seeds keep on growing.”
Available to rent starting Sept. 4 via grailmoviehouse.com