In 1968, America’s first Black variety show, SOUL!, helmed by producer and eventual host Ellis Haizlip, premiered on public television. The pioneering series ran for six years, cementing itself as not only a vehicle to celebrate Black artistry, community and culture but also as a platform for political expression and a powerful force in the fight for social justice. In Mr. SOUL!, award-winning filmmaker Melissa Haizlip—the niece of Ellis—portrays in exquisite detail a revolutionary time in American culture and entertainment through vibrant archival footage and interviews with numerous Black luminaires who appeared on SOUL!, or were impacted by it.
Winner of the Best Music Documentary at the IDA Documentary Awards and the Audience Award for Best Feature at AFI Docs in 2018, Mr. SOUL! will premiere on Independent Lens, Monday, March 29 at 10 pm.
While chronicling the journey of SOUL!, filmmaker Melissa Haizlip recounts the life and contributions of the late Ellis Haizlip, who was steeped in the New York City arts community prior to creating the show. Ellis quickly stepped into the role of host of his creation, where his earnest demeanor, low-key interviewing style, and his passion for the Black artistic community and their works—including books, the spoken word, music, film and dance—culminated in a show that depicted the Black experience in an utterly groundbreaking way. Haizlip’s creation shifted the media focus from what was then uniformly images of inner-city poverty and violence, to instead shine a light on the vibrant contemporary Black Arts Movement.
Initially produced for New York public television, SOUL! with its singular focus on the Black community, was utterly groundbreaking. It quickly became a nationwide forum to showcase African Americans’ profound contribution to the arts. By 1970, the weekly show—each episode a mix of performances and interviews—was broadcast by 72 PBS affiliates across the country. This film celebrates the genesis of SOUL! from inception, through its rise as a cultural force, to its final episode in 1973, after the series lost public funding, a casualty of changing political sensibilities.
Narrated by award-winning performer Blair Underwood, Mr. SOUL! features not only archival performances from music legends like Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, and Patti Labelle, but also spoken word performances from the Last Poets and Sonia Sanchez, dance numbers from Carmen de Lavallade and interviews with James Baldwin, Muhammed Ali and Maya Angelou, among many others. Artists such as Harry Belafonte, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and activist Kathleen Cleaver share their recollections about the show and its impact on them.
“SOUL! broke new ground in entertainment, and its impact is still being felt today, as it inspired an entire generation of artists who watched at home as young people, with rapt attention, never missing the show every week,” said filmmaker Melissa Haizlip. “I hope the story of Ellis Haizlip and his creation continues to inspire the Black community to make their own art; art that reflects them and their own worldview, and that they never compromise their creative vision.”
“With Mr. SOUL!, Melissa shines a light on a one-of-a-kind creative visionary, and his truly important cultural creation,” said Independent Lens Executive Producer Lois Vossen. “We are delighted to bring the story of Ellis Haizlip and SOUL! back home to public television.”
About the filmmakers:
MELISSA HAIZLIP (producer, director, writer)
Melissa Haizlip is an award-winning filmmaker based in New York. Her work responds to pressing social issues at the intersection of racial justice, social justice, activism, and representation. Female transformation and empowerment are at the core of all of her ideas, with the goal being to advocate and amplify the voices of women and people of color. Melissa’s feature documentary, Mr. SOUL!, has been awarded a finalist for the 2019 inaugural Library of Congress Lavine / Ken Burns Prize for Film, a new, annual prize that recognizes a filmmaker whose documentary uses original research and compelling narrative to tell stories that touch on some aspect of American history. The film won Best Music Documentary at the 2018 International Documentary Association Awards. Mr. SOUL! premiered at Tribeca and screened at 50 festivals, receiving 16 Jury and Audience Awards for Best Documentary, and the 2019 FOCAL Award for Best Use of Archival Footage in an Entertainment Production. Melissa directed and produced Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop and produced You’re Dead to Me (2013) directed by Wu Tsang, about a grieving Chicana mother coming to terms with the loss of her transgender child on Día de los Muertos. The film won Best Short at the 2014 Imagen Awards, and screened at over 50 festivals and museums. Melissa’s two-channel art films have been exhibited by the Hammer Museum Los Angeles Biennial, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Melissa has been awarded grants from the Ford Foundation JustFilms, National Endowment for the Humanities, International Documentary Association, National Endowment for the Arts, Black Public Media, Firelight Media, ITVS, Awesome Without Borders, and Puffin Foundation. Melissa went to Yale University. She’s currently producing a docuseries on women in hip-hop.
SAM POLLARD (co-director)
Sam Pollard has collaborated extensively with many filmmakers, bringing programming that illuminates the Black experience in America to both television and theatrical audiences for over twenty-five years. He has taught editing at NYU Tisch School of the Arts for 30 years. A multiple Emmy Award-winning, Academy Award-nominated director, Sam was nominated for a 2018 Grammy Award for Two Trains Runnin’. His director filmography includes the six-part documentary television series Why We Hate produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television and Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions, Sammy Davis, Jr.: I Gotta Be Me, Frank Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, ACORN and the Firestorm, August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, Slavery By Another Name, Maynard and Joe Papp.