Directed By Melissa Haizlip & Samuel D. Pollard
Written By Melissa Haizlip
Somewhere in Guadalajara, Mexico in the early 70’s, a four-eyed child sat before his TV, awed by a B-movie called, Creature from the Black Lagoon. The film, with its hokey rubber-suited monster, planted a seed in that young boy’s mind. His name is Guillermo del Toro, and that seed blossomed into the Academy Award-winning film, The Shape of Water. If low-brow art sends out inspirational ripples that influence the next generation, then the 1968 TV series, Soul!, hit its audience with the force of a tsunami.
In 1968, racial tension threatened to tear America apart, but you wouldn’t know it from watching popular shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and I Dream of Jeannie. Coloured TVs made their way into people’s homes, but not shows featuring people of colour. After the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, America was at a tipping point. Pressure bursts pipes, but it also forges diamonds, and the African American community used their pain and frustration to fuel a renaissance.
Ellis Haizlip was a former theatre kid who grew up to be a New York culture vulture who worked with luminaries like James Baldwin. In 1968, he joined a local New York broadcast called Soul! as producer and host. Soul! was conceived as a ‘black’ Tonight Show and featured interviews and musical performances, but it quickly outgrew that label. During his time in New York, Ellis built up a little black book filled with the city’s best acts. He tapped into the African American renaissance, booking the hottest talent in the country — singers, dancers, poets, and activists. Before long, an episode of Soul! was the place for top acts to be, and PBS was broadcasting the show nationally.
Mr. Soul! gives you the sense that Ellis was a noble man, and what makes the film special is how it stresses his philosophy of “use the platform you’re given to affect change.” Soul! could have worked as an inoffensive variety show, but Ellis instead engaged in conversations that made people uncomfortable. He wouldn’t censor acts or avoid difficult topics either. As a result, Ellis inspired a generation of young African Americans, and reshaped many white people’s rigid pre-conceptions.
The documentary’s director, Melissa Haizlip (Ellis’ niece), backs this up by interviewing a host of former viewers and guests who discuss what Soul! means to them. All the guests are terrific, and I wish they each had more screen time. There’s no short supply of wonderful anecdotes either; the eternally insightful drum god, Questlove, gushes about how The Roots stole some of their moves from bands on Soul!.
Ellis Haizlip personified Mr. Soul!
You won’t find another documentary featuring so many heavy-hitters. Muhammad Ali, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, James Baldwin, Patti LaBelle, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and more appear as interview subjects or in archival footage. Some of the clips from the old show are priceless. I apologize in advance to Migos, but there’s no modern-day equivalent to watching Al Green’s electrifying onstage swagger; no one matches how Stevie Wonder gets the audience jumping in the aisles like they’re at a church sermon. By the time Mr. Soul! finished, I felt like my major organs were swapped out with Thanos’ Infinity Stones.
Mr. Soul! isn’t just a collection of Teddy Pendergrass performances, however. The film shifts gears and takes on a heavier tone. Protest is one of the big themes, and Haizlip doesn’t shy away from difficult material. There’s footage of hostile police forces and angry mobs beating on black protesters; the director paints a picture of the late-60’s landscape to emphasize the importance of what was happening on Soul!. Ellis, a gay man who had Louis Farrakhan on his show and pressed him about the Nation of Islam’s stance on homosexuality, fought for change on so many fronts that it’s staggering. To call Ellis ahead of his time is like saying that Black Panther sold some tickets.
Mr. Soul! is one of the most fascinating, entertaining, and inspiring documentaries that I’ve seen in years. It has the most charismatic subjects you’ll find in a doc, and it’s filled with clips of world-class performances. You haven’t truly lived until you’ve watched Patti LaBelle belt out a note so powerful you swear she’s about to crack open the sky. But above all else, Ellis Haizlip’s story deserves to be heard. Mr. Soul! is a film about change, and it tracks Soul!‘s impact through the years. With Soul!, Ellis Haizlip formed a movement, and that movement created a legacy — one that outlived its founder and continues to this day. Soul! laid the foundation for today’s greatest black artists, ranging from Beyoncé, Ryan Coogler, and Ava DuVernay to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Pharrell Williams, and Shonda Rhimes.
Soul! expanded the notion of who a black person could be — personally, artistically, and sexually. The show and the documentary highlight black excellence and champion equality, tolerance, and inclusion, and that it manages to be funny, charming, and uplifting is icing on the cake. Mr. Soul! made me feel all kinds of ways; I laughed, shed a tear, and wanted to get up and dance. That’s because even in his absence, Ellis Haizlip never lets his audience forget that they got Soul!
The Hot Docs Film Festival takes place from Thursday, April 26 to May 6. Visit the official website for more info.