Mr. SOUL! Review
The publication of the Kerner Commission Report in 1968 highlighted the role played by the American media in exacerbating the country’s stark racial divide, forcing public broadcasters to slowly open their doors to change. Black creators were finally given the opportunity to represent their own culture in a more positive light, marking a move away from the racist stereotypes that had been reinforced by the entertainment industry for decades (although it remains a struggle 50 years on). While the power of TV continued to grow, it was yet to experience a programme made by Black people, for Black people. 1968 proved to be a pivotal year in that respect, with the likes of Like It Is and Say Brother all debuting along with SOUL!, a ground-breaking weekly show that celebrated the full breadth and scope of the Black Arts Movement.
Produced – and eventually presented by - Ellis Haizlip, the initial idea was pitched as a “Black Tonight Show” for New York’s public television station, WNET. But Ellis wasn’t interested in overseeing a generic, watered-down talk show where the presenter was centre of attention. Instead, he envisioned a programme that pushed boundaries and showcased the very best in Black artistry, welcoming musicians, poets, sportspeople, dancers and thinkers, putting the spotlight on well-known names alongside cutting-edge entertainers largely unknown to the wider public.
Directed by Ellis’ niece, Melissa Haizlip, Mr. SOUL! recalls a remarkable show that has sadly been forgotten in the sands of time. Ellis was grounded in theatre and brought the energy of live performance with him to TV, creating a platform for an amazing array of acts rarely given this level of exposure. Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Patti Labelle and Earth, Wind and Fire were some of the musicians to give electrifying renditions of their songs, while whole shows would be dedicated to Blue Note jazz musicians, poetry (The Last Poets performance is brave but essential programming in every sense possible) and dance.
Haizlip divides the story between the timeline of SOUL!, which ran from 1968 to 1973 (“imagine what a 20 year run could’ve done for Black people” ponders Questlove), and Ellis’ personal life. On appearance he was unassuming and soft spoken, which may suggest someone equally as conservative in thought. Yet that stereotype didn’t apply to Ellis, who was always looking for an edge and a way to introduce critical thought into his work. That was why as an openly gay Black man in 1960s America he was willing to challenge Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan about his views on homosexuality live on air, or why he would dedicate an entire two-hour show to an interview between poet Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin.
Behind the scenes SOUL! was created by a mostly Black female production team, while on-screen the likes of Toni Morrison, Kathleen Cleaver and Betty Shabazz all made notable appearances. Friends, family, show guests and production staff speak with warmth about Ellis (who died aged 61 in 1991), reflecting on the importance and unfiltered nature of the show (no 7-second broadcasting delay existed back then), although the looming shadow of the Nixon administration makes its presence known in the latter half of the film. Ellis believed the government wanted his show off the air as it promoted free thinking by Black people and challenged the white establishment. It was eventually defunded and closed down along with a number of other Black-led public broadcast shows, Nixon and his cronies doing little to hide their true racist motivations.
Soul Train would go on to become one of the most famous Black TV shows of the following decade, it’s music-centric model far more compatible to the trouble-free experience preferred by white network owners. Whether viewed as a member of Ellis family, or as an outsider, it is hard to think of a show – whether white or Black-centred – that comes close to the array of thought-provoking content curated by Ellis during SOUL!'s short 5-year run. It would’ve no doubt served as the inspiration for an entirely new generation of young Black creatives exposed to this show every week and this documentary goes some way to reminding us of its historical and cultural importance.
Mr. SOUL! is available in virtual cinemas across the US from August 28.