Why Soul! Was a TV Show 50 Years Ahead of Its Time

TV Features Mr. Soul!
Why Soul! Was a TV Show 50 Years Ahead of Its Time

In 1972, the Nation of Islam’s controversial spokesman, Louis Farrakhan, sat down for an interview with Ellis Haizlip, on the latter’s pioneering public television program, Soul! During the episode’s wide-ranging discussion, before a live studio audience packed with Farrakhan’s supporters, Haizlip, who was openly gay, asked his guest about the NOI’s attitudes toward prospective gay and lesbian members—to which the minister responded, uninterrupted, with a homophobic, four-and-a-half minute sermon on man’s “nature.” As excerpted in the remarkable new documentary Mr. Soul!, directed by Haizlip’s niece, Melissa Haizlip, and Sam Pollard, the exchange is charged with a certain unacknowledged prescience: The thorny issues it raises, from the limits of free speech and the responsibilities of TV hosts to the intersection of (or divisions among) the struggles for black and queer liberation, are reminiscent enough of our own that it’s easy to forget the clip is nearly 50 years old.

“I hesitate to use the word ‘prophetic’—that sounds hagiographic—but I just think he had an eye to the future,” Melissa says when I meet her in April, the morning before the film’s world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. “He said it himself. He knew that the history of the show would be significant ‘when things go down,’ meaning that there would be a time when we would be able to look back and appreciate it.”

That time, it appears, is now. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Soul!’s debut, marginalized communities’ demands for social change and its relationship to cultural representation is once again central to the debate over TV’s role in American political life—just as it was in 1968, when the dearth of black figures on the Big Three broadcasters led National Educational Television (NET) director of cultural programming Christopher Lukas and Ellis, the network’s first black producer, to develop the idea for black culture variety show.

Soon, Soul! emerged as the country’s most prominent platform for the Black Arts Movement—over the years, it attracted such literary luminaries as Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovanni. The most arresting sequences in Mr. Soul!, though, may be the archival clips of performances by the likes of The Last Poets (chanting the provocative “Die, Nigga”), Wilson Pickett and Marion Williams (singing the life-affirming “Oh Happy Day” with Odetta in the audience), and Sister Common (dancing, mesmerizingly, to the traditional spirituals “Lay My Burden Down” and “Battle of Jericho”). The result, as Melissa points out, was a TV series specifically about the black experience that nonetheless viewed the black experience as inextricable from the American one.

“All of these voices combine to make this pastiche or quilt of African American culture, within the zeitgeist of American culture,” she says when I bring up the arduous work of gathering the footage—which, she adds, may be donated to the Smithsonian Institution, along with the extensive interviews conducted in the course of making the film. “Because it really is—it’s not separate. When I tell people about the film, I say, ‘It’s not just about black culture. It’s about American culture. It’s about American life. It’s about American history, television history, broadcast history.’”

That multipronged history—and its potent correspondences with the present— come together over the course of Mr. Soul!, which weaves a biographical portrait of Ellis into its account of Soul!’s evolution. Though our own moment is never mentioned explicitly, connections emerge: A climate of political unrest; a corrupt and paranoiac president; a flowering of work from black artists and activists alike, and a belief that the identities of those writing, producing, directing and appearing on television are instrumental in determining its content. As an openly gay man with a mostly female staff producing a TV show for a predominantly black audience in an industry landscape that was—is—dominated by straight white men, Ellis presaged current conversations about on-screen and behind-the-camera representation by decades. It was this, in part, that spurred his niece (and former producing partner) to begin the project.

“The moment was 10 years ago, believe or not, when I realized that nobody was telling this story,” she says of Mr. Soul!’s genesis. “We were on the verge of really opening up about inclusion, diversity—it was the hot topic about a decade ago, even though it was long overdue. And I realized, this is a story that has somehow managed to fall through the cracks.”

Combine that with Melissa’s intimate knowledge of her subject—she remembers “knocking knees” with the likes of James Earl Jones, Melvin Moore, and Betty Shabazz as a child, when her uncle brought them home from Soul!—and she become convinced that she had inherited Ellis’ mantle.

“It seemed inevitable that I would be the keeper of the stories and the keeper of the dream,” she says. “It wasn’t my story. It was just my story to tell. There’s a very big difference.”

Of course, this also meant resisting the temptation to turn the film into “a valentine” to its subject—thus the bracing effect of the exchange with Farrakhan, followed by essential context from a few of the many prominent scholars, former guests and friends and colleagues of Ellis to appear in Mr. Soul! When I mention bristling at Ellis’ failure to challenge the minister’s homophobic remarks, and then reconsidering that instinct, Haizlip nods.

“The tricky thing, and certainly for a contemporary audience, is to recognize the significance of the controversy at the time,” she explains, reminding me that even broaching the subject the Nation of Islam’s relationship with black gays and lesbians was radical in that context. ”[O]n the heels of the civil rights movement, in which black people were trying to unite and push back against the culture, the idea of going against a person who was black was unheard of, even he was vilified or was not accepted by the larger community… At the same time he was giving the man a platform, he was taking him to task for it.”

As to why Soul! hasn’t (yet) become part of the wider canon of TV programs from that era—whether as a variety/talk innovation, a landmark in the history of public television, or otherwise—the fact that it was, in Ellis’ own words, an “undiluted black show” is almost certainly the foremost reason. But Melissa is sanguine, citing her uncle’s wisdom.

“One of the things he said was, “Sometimes it’s necessary in the evolution of things to disappear,” and I felt that was significant,” she says. “He knew that maybe, in the loss of something, or the taking away—of the agency of black people, of the freedom of speech of black people—it would emerge just how important it was.”

When things go down: Now is that time, in both politics and culture, and Mr. Soul! is Soul!’s, and Ellis Haizlip’s, essential reappearance. They were already there, so far ahead of their time they were almost lost to it: As one interview subject says in the film, “Ellis already knew that black culture was world culture. Ellis already knew that black culture led, it didn’t pull. Black culture was the original avant-garde.”

Mr. Soul! premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and screens Saturday, June 16 at 7 p.m. at the National Museum of African American History as part of AFI Docs Fest. The film is without distribution. Watch the trailer here and visit the Facebook page.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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