Amid a transitional moment in the Black community, as the Civil Rights Movement gave way to the Black Power movement, TV presented Black Americans in a new way for the first time. Cultural curator Ellis Haizlip’s public television series SOUL! showcased Black faces, talent, and culture on the small-screen. On September 12, 1968, the series debuted on PBS’s WNDT with Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles as its first musical guest. From that first episode until the series was canceled in 1973 when it was snatched off the air by then-President Richard Nixon’s media suppression policies, SOUL! would become a revelation. However, this significant chapter in Black television would be mostly forgotten until now.
With her stunning documentary, Mr. Soul!, filmmaker Melissa Haizlip is revisiting her uncle’s legacy and the show that would help usher in a new moment for Black American culture. Using archival footage from the variety talk show as well as the late host’s words (voiced by Blair Underwood), the film unpacks SOUL! from its inception as well as Haizlip’s personal journey and why it was imperative for him to present the series without compromise or interference from the white gaze.
“Melissa Haizlip had been thinking about this project for a very long time, and spent a lot of time doing a lot of the groundwork,” cinematographer Hans Charles told Shadow and Act when the film debuted at Tribeca Film Festival in 2018. “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.”
More than anything, the series helped shift how Black Americas saw themselves amid one of the most devastating times in our history. Haizlip’s SOUL! Offered a place to grieve, laugh, converse and love on one another.
Mr. Soul! is now streaming on PBS Independent Lens. You can watch it here.