Directed by: Melissa Haizlip and Samuel Pollard
Written and Produced by: Melissa Haizlip
Narrated and Executive Produced by: Blair Underwood
Featuring: Ellis Haizlip, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder, Maya Angelou, Patti LaBelle, James Baldwin, Novella Nelson, Bill Withers, Al Green, Nikki Giovanni, The Last Poets, Amiri Baraka
Music by: Robert Glasper
Cinematography by: Hans Charles
Editing by: Giovanni P. Autran, Annukka Lilja, Blair McClendon
Whether or not Ellis Haizlip actually gave John Lennon the idea for “Let It Be”, as is claimed in the new documentary about Haizlip and his years as a public television host, is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. But I like to believe it’s entirely true.
As his friends tell us, Haizlip could be a liar and a scoundrel, but his impact on American culture was so great that we are expected to look past that. Mischievous as he was, Haizlip was also the creator and producer of WNET’s SOUL!, a one-hour public access program that showcased black excellence in entertainment, literature, and the arts.
Like an openly gay Dick Cavett, Haizlip brought power to the people by showcasing the premiere African-American performers of his era without ever forcing them into hierarchies: high art or low, dark-skinned or pale, male or female, his tastes were all-encompassing, and his affection for guests was always visible.
Certainly Haizlip’s interviews reflected a more personal engagement than in the somewhat dispassionate, hyper-corporate conversations taking place on The Tonight Show or Merv Griffin.
Naturally, the intellect and pride in black culture that he and SOUL! embodied were threats to the status-quo on television, and the show was nixed (or Nixon-ed, as it were) in the early 1970s. That is what makes Melissa Haizlip’s and Samuel Pollard’s new film, Mr. Soul!, a recovery effort more than anything.
This is Haizlip’s – Ellis’s niece – feature directorial debut, but Pollard, the Oscar-nominated editor and filmmaker behind Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, specializes in such projects. As in his documentary work with Spike Lee, an expert handling of vast archival material (and the desire to rescue subjugated voices from their suppression) is key to this movie’s success.
A tensile photographic backbone holds Mr. Soul! together across its nearly two-hour running time, much of it composed of famous documentary images from the era. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X both make appearances, as do the Black Panthers, Louis Farrakhan, and Stokely Carmichael.
In between this footage, the filmmakers and the astoundingly talented editors Giovanni P. Autran, Annukka Lilja, and Blair McClendon scatter in performances from the half-decade history of SOUL! by people like Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Patti LaBelle (several of which, we are told, were the singers’ television debuts).
One right after the other, legends regale us with classic songs. If nothing else, the documentary’s original soundtrack stands to set records on iTunes.
Then there are the conversations. The most provocative and historic are between Ellis Haizlip and his esteemed guests: Sidney Poitier, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, to name a few. But those conducted by the filmmakers – new interview subjects include the musician Felipe Luciano, the poet-provocateur Amiri Baraka, and the filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris (Through a Lens Darkly) – go even further in suggesting the extremity of the talk-show’s impact.
This is an unfortunate necessity because if you are anything like me, a white male of Generation Y, you will have never heard of SOUL!, WNET, or Ellis Haizlip. Yet the poets, musicians, literati, actors, and artists who appeared on the series are among the most famous in world history. What wonders have been kept from us!
Implied by their overwhelming commonness here is the sheer number of voices that were intentionally suppressed by mainstream media while the Jimmy Fallons of the world – the all-white, all-male, all-heteronormative talk show hosts who dominate the late-night industry to this day – were allowed to flourish.
If this is Haizlip’s and Pollard’s lesson for us, it is a desperately overdue, even somewhat shameful one; appropriately, they deliver it with the swift intensity of evangelists.
That is not to say that their intent is to proselytize or preach to the uninitiated. On the contrary, in discussions with Ellis’s family and friends, many describe his life as something of an unfulfilled tragedy, with a legacy deferred and a personal life of pain.
Black, gay, and under-respected, he never again received the platform that hosting offered him. Subsequently, in the last forty-five years, his name has been lost to the ether, while Arsenio, Oprah, and Whoopi became talk-show superstars.
But while Pollard and Haizlip honor the mythology of SOUL!, they do not dully historicize – this is a feature entertainment, after all, not a stodgy docuseries. Then again, perhaps it could work as a pilot if Mr. Soul! was a little shorter, a little less meandering in its structure, and a little more enflamed at the death of this American institution.
Where does that leave their work together, then? Well, for one, it will force Haizlip and Pollard – a perennial festival guest, with at least another two doc projects on the way in 2018 alone – to spend the next several months on the promotional circuit.
As it is, Mr. Soul! just had its World Premiere on April 22nd at the Tribeca Film Festival, and will inevitably continue on a similar path until it settles down into a public broadcast release. I would not be surprised to see it on the Documentary Oscar longlist in the Fall.
But the event which followed the Tribeca screening offered lessons all of its own. Composer Robert Glasper performed after the screening, along with the film’s narrator and executive producer, Blair Underwood. To call the event, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the WNET show’s premiere, a blow-out is to understate the celebratory warmth that filled Spring Studios in New York.
Given the energy in the room, it was hard not to imagine reboot-starved television executives seeing dollar signs. In the Golden Age of broadcast revivalism, Pollard and Haizlip have made a mighty case for their next collaboration.
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