In the years following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination as the Civil Rights Movement began to fray and crack, the Black Power movement arose, and Ellis Haizlip’s PBS series SOUL! gave black artists, poets, musicians, dancers, creators and activists a platform to tell their stories.
SOUL! debuted on September 12, 1968, with Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles as its first musical guest. The show aired for five years before it was stamped out in the wake of President Richard Nixon’s suppression of the media. But for those five years, what Haizlip gave black people was glorious.
With their new documentary Mr. SOUL!, co-directors Melissa Haizlip and Sam Pollard celebrate Mr. Haizlip, an enigmatic and profound man who dedicated his life to honoring black people. To bring Mr. SOUL! to life, Haizlip and Pollard turned to actor Blair Underwood to narrate the film and 13th cinematographer Hans Charles to create the images. Amid the Tribeca Film Festival, I sat down to chat with Charles about Mr. SOUL!, black images and why he embraces being labeled a black cinematographer.
Charles’ journey into film began with a simple curiosity. “I think I just realized that there was a lot of action happening around the camera,” he reflected. “There’s just so much energy around it, that it felt like a place where you always would get a chance to work. That felt different from those people who wanted to be writers or directors. There is a certain energy and a certain sense of collaboration that occurs around the camera. That visual observation made an impression on me. I started as a film loader. I interned for Brad [Bradford Young] on a film called Mo. Then I became a second assistant on Mississippi Damned. Brad was teaching for one semester at Howard [University], and I was probably the worst cinematography student; I really didn’t understand the technical concepts. But I would always be the first student there and the last student to leave. Toward the end of the semester, he asked two of us to be interns on a commercial he was doing. He asked his best student, and he asked me — the most enthusiastic student. I was the one who showed up the next day.”
As he began crafting his career, Charles was very deliberate about the types of images he wanted to be responsible for. For the Emmy nominee, the black image was the most important. “My approach is one that is pretty consistent with a visual philosophy that comes out of Howard University,” he said. “It’s partially technical, but it’s also partially esoteric. So it’s just a belief that image is non-neutral. The engagement of image-making is very deliberate. There’s no such thing as a neutral filmmaker, in particular to people of color, engaged in this. What I decided for myself was that I wanted to use image creation to be a part of the development of what I call black film theory. Now, black film theory exists — we just haven’t defined it. There’s black literature. There’s clearly black music. There’s black art. My approach is just to surround myself and to use tools and inspiration as we define blackness, and to visually infuse that into the work that I do.”
Since SOUL! was an unfiltered and revolutionary recognition of black art and life, it was a no-brainer for Charles to come aboard the film and resurrect images that had been shelved for nearly 50 years. “Melissa Haizlip, the co-director, and producer of the film had been thinking about this project for a very long time, and spent a lot of time doing a lot of the groundwork,” Charles revealed. “She spent a good five years gathering archives, identifying people that she wanted to interview and getting a strong sense of what the story was going to be. And then, of course, fundraising. Brad couldn’t do the cinematography. I think she asked Arthur Jafa, but he was like, ‘You really should ask Hans, I think Hans would be perfect for this.’ She called me, and we just talked about it, and I said yes.”
What Charles experienced while working on Mr. SOUL! was much more than just tackling a job. “I thought I was just replacing a director of photography for a little bit,” he recalled. “It wasn’t until it got into Tribeca that I realized that I was the only person who shot the film. I really enjoyed working with Melissa. She’s a really great researcher and a really great director and has such a keen sense of what it is that she wants from the people that she interviews, and she had such a strong vision for the film. I just felt a sense of collaboration which is really important to me. It’s one of the things I love most about being a cinematographer. I get to service the story, to have to take on somebody else’s direction and make something happen. I find that really challenging and rewarding. It’s almost cosmic. It just opens me up in a different way, and I just feel always transformed after every project. Melissa and Sam [Pollard] gave me a wide berth of space to create. I worked closely with gaffer Christian Epps to help craft every frame well. Christian is a veteran in the game. I feel like working with him is a rite of passage, if you consider yourself a cinematographer of color. He’s helped craft so many great images and collaborations with so many great cinematographers.”
As black people understand our history in relation to what’s both in front of the camera and behind it, Charles hopes that we’ll continue to see even more of ourselves. “Black people have a privileged relationship to blackness,” Charles said thoughtfully. “This is this thing that I’m reacting to, this thing we call blackness. We’ve had a long tradition of creating motion pictures in this country from Oscar Micheaux very early on — breaking the rules, doing things his way. We’ve been a consistent part of the American film canon. But, because film was so monetarily intensive, and because it’s the youngest of the arts, black people hadn’t had the opportunity to organize and catalyze and analyze what we’ve done in the space. Digital has allowed an acceleration of that. I’m not sure I’m the most talented cinematographer. I know I’m not the most innovative. I know I’m not the most avant-garde, but I do think about it deliberately. Like all people, I love to see my reflection in the medium that I adore. I adore cinema. I love all forms of cinema. I love the movies. I love the magic of seeing and watching a film, and I’ve been lucky enough to be of the generation that has bridged the gap between celluloid and digital and what we call the silver screen and the small screen. I have no problem with being called a black cinematographer. What Aretha Franklin does to your neurons sonically is what I want to do visually. I realize that people recognize your recognition of them. They know that you see them, and they immediately relax in front of the camera because they can tell there’s something that you’re bringing.”
After Mr. SOUL! Charles is putting his foot on the gas pedal even harder. He’s currently working on a Wu-Tang Clan documentary directed by Sacha Jenkins and the feature film 1 Angry Black Man, directed by his creative partner Menelek Lumumba. “1 Angry has been a tectonic shift for me, possibly because I was also a producer of the project,” he said. “The writer-director, Menelek Lumumba, has been my close and personal friend for the last 12 years. We went to film school together, so we developed this intimacy regarding cinema. I sometimes think we see films slightly differently, but I think that difference has always been complimentary. It’s so rare, as a cinematographer, that you make a movie with a director that you’ve known for so long. For black people to succeed in this business, we need to create and market our collaborations. The singular star is good, but it’s not enough to survive all the dark that this business is going to throw at you. Luckily, I’ve also had two other producing partners, Caroline Onikute and Cordielle Street, who are both producers in the business. They do a lot of commercial work. We formed this company, Align Pictures, about three or four years ago. We got to make the movie we want to make the way we wanted to make it. We’ve been talking about it for so long. Now we get to enact the rest of the plan, which is an attempt to make two movies a year for the next ten years. (Laughing) It’s very ambitious.”
Mr. SOUL! premiered April 22, 2018, at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.