Mr. SOUL!

Upcoming documentary on Ellis Haizlip and his groundbreaking show SOUL!

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Behind-the-scenes at SOUL! with Ellis Haizlip and Mandrill. Photo courtesy Alex Harsley.

Melissa Haizlip was four years old when her uncle, Ellis Haizlip, premiered his PBS program SOUL! in 1968. While she stared at the TV wondering, “What is he doing in that very small box?” he was overseeing a visual revolution; a talk show exclusively featuring the finest music and most innovative minds Black America had to offer—LaBelle, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Last Poets, Stokley Carmichael, James Baldwin, and so many more. Still too young to fully grasp the show’s magnitude, Melissa was privy to the ultimate backstage pass as Ellis brought the show’s guests to her West End Avenue and 80th Street home, where he also stayed. She remembers running around the kitchen table with Malcolm X’s daughters while Ellis was consoling Betty Shabazz in the next room. That’s just one of the moments that stuck with her as she got older and fell under Ellis’s mentorship. Under his tutelage, she enjoyed a twenty-five-year career on Broadway and founded independent film company Shoes in the Bed Productions.

SOUL! empowered a generation for five seasons and set the precedent for every succeeding Black entertainment show. However, in our current here-today-gone-today reality, the show sits in obscurity. Melissa, along with producer Samuel Pollard, is in the midst of creating the documentary Mr. SOUL! in hopes of educating a nation of Black youth who need to heed Ellis’s message now more than ever.

Tell me about growing up with Ellis Haizlip.

I was aware that he was different, because of the hours he kept. So when he would come back from these tapings, it would be very late. I knew he was special because he would bring home people who were magical to me. I would learn later that I was bouncing on the knee of James Earl Jones, or it was Clifton Davis who would pinch my cheek. Ellis would hold court in our kitchen late at night telling his stories and fixing oatmeal, and I would come out from my bedroom, hide under the table, and try to figure out who these magical people were.

What episode of SOUL! stands out as your favorite?

That’s a tough one. It was really remarkable to see a young, hungry Al Green. That’s probably one of my favorite episodes. He’d never been seen before; it was before Soul Train. It’s just really a remarkable, raw, extraordinary performance. I also love the Wonderlove episode with Stevie Wonder, which was actually directed by Stan Lathan, who was one of the original directors on the show. I love the Harry Belafonte and Sidney Portier episode in which they’re talking about their film Buck and the Preacher. There’s just so many moments like this.

Unlike shows like Soul Train, Aresenio Hall, and 106 & Park, SOUL! is not remembered as well. Why do you think that is?

I think the big difference is the time period in which SOUL! existed. One of the themes of the [documentary] is exploring the shifting cultural landscape of race during the 1960s. Today’s Black television figures didn’t face the same challenges as Ellis, so it’s a little hard to compare them by the same standards. I think his story is still vividly remembered by historians and fans from an older generation. It’s largely not known to a younger audience growing up in an electronic age. So, I think it’s time to revisit it and reintroduce this fascinating moment in Black history.

What’s the reason that you decided to make the Mr. SOUL! documentary?

First of all, I’ve always been very close to Ellis. So when he died, I was the keeper of the flame—he had instructed me with many stories and many truths—but at the time, I didn’t know what to do with it. For years, I held out. I realized that it would be so much more important to give it a visual treatment, because it’s such a powerful and extraordinary visual history. I kept thinking that this was going to be impossible; just thinking about all the artists it’s going to encompass and the time frame, it’s going to be very ambitious. Finally, I realized, many of the artists who were on the show are becoming fragile, and pretty soon, there’re be no one to tell those stories. I’ll tell you, the real [catalyst] for me was when Michael Jackson died. He was very close to Ellis. He had produced his twenty-first birthday at Studio 54, and they were friends. I remember thinking one day I’ll get to interview Michael about Ellis because they had a unique relationship. So when [Michael] died, I realized, “Oh no! We’ve lost another extraordinary icon”—of course not just for Ellis, but for African American music and pop culture—the king of pop. I was terribly distressed, as was the nation and the world, but then it hit me: there’s no time to waste. The story must be told, and we have to do it now.

You received some funding already. What led to the Kickstarter campaign?

Well, the Kickstarter campaign is really important because it’s a new platform; it’s a digital platform and it’s all about community. You got to figure out a way to bridge the history gap. Right now, it’s all about social media, it’s all about social networking. We’re very active on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, our website, mrsoulmovie.com. What’s great about Kickstarter is its all-or-nothing funding. So, we must meet our goal or we won’t get a single penny at all. People can give as little as one dollar, or if they pledge $1,000, they will actually get an on-screen producer’s credit. We have a lot of great rewards to give away, because it’s all about the free stuff. [chuckles] But really, our goal is to bring people along on the journey. We’re resurrecting some really important gems of culture, so we want to bring people along for the entire ride; from the beginning. We want to reach the demographic that PBS doesn’t really have anymore and bring the public back to public television.

Currently, there’s a resurgence of Black-music documentaries. This is a good timing for the documentary Mr. SOUL!.

Nostalgia is not just about feeling good; it’s about feeling empowered. This is a really wonderful time for Black independent cinema. In terms of music, our contribution to Black pop music and the advent of pop music in general is extraordinary and it is fun to look back and see what those contributions are. I saw the Marley documentary twice. I wept, because it was such a wonderful in-depth look at someone who has really created a soundtrack to our lives. Same thing with the film on A Tribe Called Quest [Beats, Rhymes and Life]; I thought that was important. It’s just really time to tell these stories, and it’s important that we’re the ones telling the stories.

Please visit the Mr. SOUL! Kickstarter campaign. Follow the film project on Twitter: @mrsoulthemovie.

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  1. One of the seminal television programs from my salad days — as well as the series “With Ossie and Ruby.”

    A documentary is a great idea, but how about putting the product itself out on DVD? Ditto Ossie and Ruby.

    – Michael Hoffmann

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