PBS to premiere ‘Mr. Soul!’ doc about once forgotten, innovative Black talk show

Director Melissa Haizlip's documentary chronicles her uncle, TV producer Ellis Haizlip, and his groundbreaking public television show that showcased Black luminaries like Stevie Wonder, Stokley Carmichael, James Baldwin and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Dave Chappelle once quipped on his popular comedy sketch series Chappelle’s Show that being the first Black people to do anything in America was always accompanied by a tragic, unhappy story. He then launched into a skit that hilariously yet poignantly depicted the tale of the first Black man to use a “whites only” toilet in the Jim Crow South.

While the sketch was full of scatological slapstick, the point was clear: When you go back to the early 20th century and make discoveries right up to the 1960s, you read about the contentious, often violent and sometimes fatal side effects that accompany Black Americans’ efforts to live as human beings in this nation, from sitting at lunch counters or casting a ballot in a voting booth — an idea that was viewed as progressive on its surface, but in actuality is rooted in simplicity.

That said, the story of America’s first talk show aimed specifically at attracting, entertaining and enlightening Black Americans is overwhelmingly positive, which is why it makes ironic sense that it has gone virtually unknown in the annals of television history for decades.

“Soul!” host/producer/creator Ellis Haizlip (center) is surrounded by members of the J.C. White Choir in a scene from the film Mr. Soul!, directed by Melissa Haizlip. Courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions

Tonight, PBS airs a documentary about said show, something so grand in its ambitions, uncompromising in its principles and successful in its execution that it gave birth to an ideal that is almost passé today but was lofty at best in the 1960s: Being unapologetically Black.

Mr. Soul! tells the tale of PBS’ Soul! show, a public television platform for performance and perspective for the Black community in New York City.

From its premiere in 1968 through to its cancellation in 1973, Soul! featured an array of individuals from what Donny Hathaway called the “Black pool of genius:” singers including Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield; groups like The Spinners, Earth, Wind & Fire, Ashford & Simpson; poets such as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni, plus thought leaders and orators like Stokley Carmichael and James Baldwin.

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The film is also about the creator of this magical program, the man to whom the moniker Mr. Soul! is addressed: Ellis Haizlip. A man who had been a crucial part of several Black Broadway shows, such as The Amen Corner, Trumpets of the Lord and Dark of the Moon partnered with Christopher Lukas of PBS’ New York affiliate WNDT (now WNET) to create what Lukas dubbed, “the Black Tonight Show.”

Mr. Soul!, directed by Haizlip’s niece, Melissa Haizlip, opens with a voiceover as a TV screen identifies the year as 1968: “Today, whites have every hour of programming on television. Blacks … have … none.” 

Before Soul! began, much of the time you saw Black people on TV was when they were on the evening news, usually adjacent to law enforcement or gun violence.

The image of the Black American had been so established in the media with negativity or indifference that the Black community itself had almost been brainwashed into believing the untrue representations.

Haizlip filled a void for Black America that they didn’t even know was there. Mr. Soul! not only sheds light on the show itself and its pantheon of guests, but also of the insurmountable impact it was having on its audience.

The sight of Giovanni having a two-hour meeting of the minds with Baldwin is an inspiring one, to say the least.

The revelation of its first live telecast featuring the venerable Last Poets reciting their righteously indignant “Die Nigger Die” is shocking, rabble-rousing and motivational.

An hour-long showcase of blind instrumentalist Rashaan Roland Kirk playing three reed instruments at once, succeeded by an unfiltered conversation with Haizlip, who was the show’s most regular host, about the post-traumatic effects of slavery was the dawn of what KRS-One would later deem “edutainment.”

Melissa Haizlip spoke with theGrio about Mr. Soul! and the impact her uncle made with his program.

“Black joy is revolutionary and curating joy is an act of resistance,” Melissa said of Ellis. While only a child when Soul! was airing, Melissa marvels at Ellis’ fearlessness, saying he did not “did not ask for permission” to target a TV show specifically for African-Americans, something she calls a “cultural corrective.”

A 1972 episode of “Soul!” entitled “Wonderlove,” featuring Stevie Wonder.

She says it was Ellis’ goal to illustrate “this idea that there can be a space for Black resilience. The importance of the Black voice is not seen through a white lens or white gaze. All of that is resistance. And when you combine that somewhat subversive — if not radical — existence, co-existence of black art and activism, you have an extraordinary and very potent vehicle for change.”

One of the crucial elements of Mr. Soul! was its explanation and exploration of the show’s cancellation. Funding for this public TV program had ceased, despite a rigorous letter-writing campaign initiated by its host and followed through vigorously by its viewers.

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Alas, the administration was of President Richard Nixon was adverse to any kind of diverse programming, leading to the show’s eventual demise. Melissa, however, was shocked to discover in her research just how deep Nixon’s disdain ran for shows like “Soul!”

“We always knew Nixon was would be the nemesis. We knew that he was the best going to be the bad guy in our film,” Melissa said. “What we didn’t know was that we would find actual tapes in which he was discussing his frustration with and loathing of Black people and also progressive media.”

(L to R) “Soul!” director Stan Lathan on set for the interview between “Soul!” host/producer/creator Ellis Haizlip and filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles in a scene from the film Mr. Soul!, directed by Melissa Haizlip. Courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions.

Despite the dissolution of Soul! in the spring of 1973, the seeds sown by the groundbreaking PBS program paved the way for every Black media institution that has uplifted the diaspora since, from Soul Train to The Arsenio Hall Show to In Living Color and beyond.

When asked why she felt the memory of Soul! faded as its successors’ have not, Melissa said she believes the program’s timing had much to it. Soul! was created during a period when live telecasts went unsaved, quantitative archiving was in its infancy, and — most importantly — diversity in the media was still just a new idea.

“It was just before diversity and inclusion were buzzwords for television,” Melissa said, “and before we were shifting more toward diverse programming and before we were in the digital age. It was really at this pivotal moment of history.”

Since Aug. 2020 leading up to the PBS’ premiere of Mr. Soul!, Melissa posted the documentary in several virtual theaters for online screenings. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country as America’s generations-long police violence scourge reached new heights with the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Melissa felt it was her duty to expose Mr. Soul! to a public who needed its message now more than ever.

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“I kept thinking, ‘When we look back at this time, everyone’s going to ask, oh, how are you feeling? How did you feel? What was it like to get through this pandemic?'” she said, “and I thought to myself, ‘I’d rather they asked me, what did you do? Not how did you feel, but what did you do? What did you do to make a difference? What did you do to make a change?'”

Mr. Soul! airs on Monday, Feb. 22 on PBS. It features interviews with Questlove, Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Sonia Sanchez, Harry Belafonte, and more. Select full episodes of “Soul!” can be streamed on Amazon Prime.

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