Today, Black faces are seen across networks, cable shows, and streaming platforms. Yet, not long ago, Black folks used to run to the television set to spot a glowing brown face on the small screen. Long before sitcoms and dramas like Living Single and Scandal pulled in viewers from across the country, Ellis Haizlip’s public television series SOUL! premiered, giving Black viewers an unfiltered and authentic representation of Black culture on TV.
Soul! debuted September 12, 1968, and was produced by Haizlip, an activist and creator, and PBS’s WNDT. He would eventually host the series, introducing acts like Al Green, Patti LaBelle, and the Bluebelles, and even providing the platform for that infamous conversation between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni. The series would run until 1973, showcasing various musical acts and giving a stage to activists like Kathleen Cleaver and Betty Shabazz.
Though Soul! was revolutionary, not much is known about the show or its majestic host. Now, with her NAACP Image Award-nominated film, Mr. Soul! (Lalah Hathaway’s song “Show Me Your Soul” has also been shortlisted for an Oscar), filmmaker Melissa Haizlip is speaking with ESSENCE about her uncle’s indelible legacy and bringing Soul! to the 21st century.
“I was a little girl when Ellis was making the show,” Haizlip says. “I’ve wanted to make this film for my entire life because of my relationship with my uncle. I had a deep, personal connection to the Soul! story. I would bask in the glow of these intelligent, glamorous Black people, and I was mesmerized by my uncle’s coterie of magical friends. It would be years before I would learn that it was James Earl Jones who was pinching my cheek, or that I’d been bouncing on the knee of Melba Moore or Clifton Davis.”
When the series premiered at the tail end of 1968, the Black community was still reeling from the deaths of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Civil Rights Movement was also experiencing a shift that would give way to the Black Power Movement. “I think of [Ellis] as curating Black joy because he knew that we collectively had suffered from so much trauma, and it was time for trauma-free Blackness,” Haizlip reflects. “We have suffered from so much, and we needed to be reminded of our greatness.”
Though she had the footage from the Soul! archives and the personal connection to her uncle, bringing Mr. Soul! to the big screen was an arduous task. “It’s important to recognize that it took 10 years to make this film,” Haizlip says. “It took a long time to assemble the funding. Funding for an independent film is tough. For me, being a Black woman who was not famous was certainly part of the challenge. I made sure that I assembled an incredible board of advisers comprised of university-based scholars and other experts in the field.”
When it came to curating Ellis’s personal journey and the TV show in Mr. Soul!, Haizlip wanted it to be more than an exercise in nostalgia. “We wanted to give the film, and the history that we were exploring, the weight that it deserves and the gravitas that it deserved as well,” she explains. “We wanted it to be evergreen, something that every generation could enjoy. I like to say that Soul! is the greatest show you’ve never heard of. So much of our Black culture jumps off from the Soul Train era because that’s when Black culture was assimilating into the mainstream. But Soul! jumped off before that. We’ve always been excellent, and I think Ellis Haizlip knew that. He was trying to show this extensive view of Black culture as a way of reimagining ourselves so that we weren’t defined by what we were seeing on TV and the negative images of Black people and the disempowerment of the Black woman.”
Soul! became a pillar of the Black community until its abrupt cancelation in 1973 after an astounding 130 episodes. When Haizlip learned the series would no longer be funded, he said goodbye, closing the chapter on Soul! forever. Many of his close friends and comrades wanted him to fight for the series, but he had a different perspective. “I think Ellis realized that he was ahead of his time,” Haizlip says. “They were not ready. They had asked him to integrate the show. They felt it was too Black and too strong. He was like, ‘We’re already integrating the network by having a Black show.’ So rather than go out defeated and to not lose his creative control and vision, he went out on a high note.”
Though the world was not ready for Soul! then, the show has never resonated more today. “I feel like the time is now and the times have caught up, and we are having our own revolution,” the Yale alum says. “We are on the eve of a great racial reckoning in this country. And I think that’s why it’s such a perfect moment for Soul! As we question how we’re going to move forward in the midst of all of this, we need Ellis’s voice right now.”
Mr. Soul! premieres today on Independent Lens/PBS.