Ellis Haizlip is surrounded by members of the J.C. White Choir just after their mesmerizing performance on his show in a scene from the film “Mr. Soul!” Photo courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions

“I’m not trying to say that I won’t ever see Black people on TV should some unaware group of people take ‘Soul!’ off. It’s just that I won’t see Black people creating, searching and acting instead of researching and reacting. There is no alternative to ‘Soul!’ — Ellis Haizlip

With seemingly endless and still-proliferating outlets on television right now, equal representation – with regards to non-whites, women, the LGBTQI community – still stinks. So imagine, if you will, the TV landscape 50-plus years ago, when there were essentially three channels, and the airwaves were dominated by shows like “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” “Bonanza,” “Mayberry R.F.D.” and “The Doris Day Show.” 

As seen in an opening montage in the eye-opening TV documentary “Mr. Soul!,” streaming through PMA Films beginning Friday, those were some of the most-watched shows in 1968. Squeaky-clean, homogeneously white and about as representative of the wider America as science fiction. Cut to a dapper, tight-voiced Black man on a moody stage set in front of an all-Black audience, cigarette dangling precisely from his long fingers, introducing live TV performances from the likes of the pre-stardom Al Green, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, Black Ivory, Mandrill, Bill Withers, The Delfonics, Billy Preston, Wilson Pickett, Miriam Makeba, Tito Puente or Stevie Wonder. 

Then watch the same man – theater producer-turned unlikely TV host Ellis Haizlip – throw to spoken word performances by incendiary Black poets like Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez and The Last Poets, before sitting down for insightful, unfiltered interviews with Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Kwame Toure. 

That was “Soul!”

Broadcasting nationwide from the studios of New York PBS station WNET from 1968 until 1973, “Soul!” Was like “The Tonight Show,” but from a parallel universe, one where Black thinkers, writers and entertainers weren’t cautiously vetted and presented to a white viewership, but whom the effortlessly hip and plugged-in Ellis Haizlip sought out, sometimes discovered (the 16-year-old Arsenio Hall, neophyte singer-songwriters Ashford and Simpson) and then created space for on national television. In a 2020, where diversity and inclusion in entertainment is still something that has to be fought for, Ellis Haizlip made the whole thing look easy – even if it decidedly was not. 

Host, producer and creator of the television show “Soul!,” Ellis Haizlip takes a moment in a scene from the film “Mr. Soul!, directed by his niece, Melissa Haizlip. Photo by Ivan Cury/Courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions

“Mr. Soul!,” directed with obvious reverence and a nimble touch by director, writer and Haizlip’s niece, Melissa Haizlip, doubles as a biopic of both Ellis Haizlip and the short-lived but influential “Soul!” Formed while uprisings against racism (and the attendant backlash by racists) roared in the streets and a would-be authoritarian president with a penchant for paranoia and rage-tantrums was elected to the White House (Sound familiar?), “Soul!” was intended, in Haizlip’s words, “neither to educate nor entertain, but to give people a chance to share in the Black experience.” 

In the end, “Soul!” did all of that, and more. In its time on the publicly funded airwaves, the series was carried by 72 public TV stations and watched religiously by a huge proportion of Black viewers – many of whom, like interviewee Questlove, credit “Soul!” as a formative influence. “Soul!” emerges in “Mr. Soul!” as the one place on American television that managed, improbably, to present a successful, unadulterated and challengingly complex representation of the Black experience in a time when prime time had room only for tokenism and stereotypes – if it had room for Black performers at all. 

Instead, viewers of “Soul!” were treated to the avant-garde jazz of Rahsaad Roland Kirk (seen dismantling a folding chair, mid-performance, with his bare hands), experimental modern dance from George Faison or Carmen de Lavallade, long-from theatrical discussion between married legends of the Black stage Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, or a defiantly heartfelt appearance by the mother of murdered prison activist George Jackson, or Kathleen Cleaver, speaking out against the imprisonment of her husband and fellow Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. A midfilm interview with still-controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan sees the openly gay Ellis Haizlip giving the infamously homophobic Farrakhan plenty of time to speak, while gently cornering his guest on the contradictions of excluding gay Black people like himself. 

With Richard Nixon in power, a publicly funded program giving airtime to such alarming-to-white-viewers guests was an immediate target. Some stations refused to air it. One of Nixon’s infamous Oval Office recordings hears him railing obliquely against “Soul!” as part of a litany of the forces the later-disgraced president sees plotting against him. And while the outwardly unassuming Haizlip’s nonconfrontational demeanor belies that (once the show was finally defunded in 1973, a colleague recalls Haizlip’s unwillingness to take to the streets along with many of the show’s fans), Ellis Haizlip knew the essential role his show was playing. Another colleague calls him “seditious,” and, in its own, all-but-forgotten way, “Soul!” was exactly that. (For one thing, the show was produced and staffed by nearly all women, something all but impossible even now.) 

Closing with a montage of the Black entertainers, athletes, politicians and activists that followed in “Soul!” and Ellis Haizlip’s wake, “Mr. Soul!” makes the convincing case that this little-remembered (by some) PBS variety show was actually one of the most important – and entertaining – cultural milestones in American television. 

“Mr. Soul!” is showing as part of PMA Films’ “virtual video store,” starting on Friday and is co-presented by Indigo Arts Alliance. Look for an online conversation between director Melissa Haizlip and Portland’s own singer-songwriter and storyteller Samuel James in early September. Go to portlandmuseum.org/films for details and tickets. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: