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INDEPENDENT LENS: Mr. Soul!

Ellis Haizlip with the J.C. White Singers on the set of "SOUL!" (undated photo)
Courtesy of Alex Harsley
Ellis Haizlip with the J.C. White Singers on the set of "SOUL!" (undated photo)

Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022 at 9 p.m. on KPBS 2 / On demand now with PBS Video App

In 1968, America’s first Black variety show, SOUL!, helmed by producer and host Ellis Haizlip, premiered on public television. The pioneering series ran for five years, cementing itself as not only a vehicle to celebrate African American artistry, community and culture but also as a platform for political expression and a powerful force in the fight for social justice.

The historic show makes its way back into homes across the U.S. as the subject of Melissa Haizlip’s Critics Choice Award-winning documentary "Mr. SOUL!." Melissa Haizlip, the niece of Ellis, portrays in exquisite detail a revolutionary time in American culture and entertainment through vibrant archival footage and interviews with numerous Black luminaries who appeared on SOUL!, or were impacted by it.

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Trailer | Mr. SOUL!

While chronicling the journey of SOUL! filmmaker Melissa Haizlip recounts the life and contributions of the late Ellis Haizlip, who was steeped in the New York City arts community prior to creating the show. Ellis quickly stepped into the role of host of his creation, where his earnest demeanor, low-key interviewing style, and his passion for the Black artistic community and their works — including books, the spoken word, music, film and dance — culminated in a show that depicted the Black experience in a bold and unapologetic way. Haizlip’s creation shifted the media focus from what was then uniformly images of inner-city poverty and violence, to instead shine a light on the vibrant contemporary Black Arts Movement.

Ellis Haizlip on the set of "SOUL!"
Courtesy of Chester Higgins
Ellis Haizlip on the set of "SOUL!"

Initially produced for New York public television, SOUL! with its singular focus on the Black community, was utterly groundbreaking. It quickly became a nationwide forum to showcase African Americans' profound contribution to the arts. By 1970, the weekly show — each episode a mix of performances and interviews — was broadcast by 72 PBS affiliates across the country. This film celebrates the genesis of SOUL! from inception, through its rise as a cultural force, to its final episode in 1973, after the series lost public funding, a casualty of changing political sensibilities.

Ellis Haizlip on the set of "SOUL!" with the band Mandrill.
Courtesy of Alex Harsley
Ellis Haizlip on the set of "SOUL!" with the band Mandrill.
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With award-winning performer Blair Underwood providing the voice of Ellis Haizlip, “Mr. SOUL!” features not only archival performances from music legends such as Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Patti LaBelle, but also spoken word performances from The Last Poets and Sonia Sanchez, dance performances by Carmen de Lavallade and interviews with James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Muhammad Ali and Maya Angelou, among many others.

Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson in a scene from "Mr. SOUL!"
Courtesy of In The Bed Productions
Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson in a scene from "Mr. SOUL!"

Artists such as Harry Belafonte, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and activist and former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver share their recollections about the show and its tremendous impact on them and their careers.

Ellis Haizlip (left) speaks with stage manager Ernest Baxter (right) before an interview with Kathleen Cleaver (center) of the Black Panther Party, during a taping of the series SOUL!
Courtesy of Chester Higgins
Ellis Haizlip (left) speaks with stage manager Ernest Baxter (right) before an interview with Kathleen Cleaver (center) of the Black Panther Party, during a taping of the series SOUL!

“SOUL! broke new ground in entertainment, and its impact is still being felt today, as it inspired an entire generation of artists who watched at home as young people, with rapt attention, never missing the show every week,” said filmmaker Melissa Haizlip. “I hope the story of Ellis Haizlip and his inclusive creation continues to inspire the Black and brown communities and artists from every background collectively to express ourselves and make our own art; art that reflects us and our own worldview, and that we never compromise our creative vision.”

Hailed as “enthralling and illuminating” by the New Yorker and “singular and captivating” by Variety, "Mr. SOUL!" has been a continued staple of the documentary awards circuit, receiving a Cinema Eye Honors Nomination for Outstanding Debut Feature, a Critics Choice Documentary Award for Best First Documentary Feature, an IDA Documentary Award for Best Music Documentary and the Audience Award for Best Feature at AFI Docs, among others.

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The film is available on demand for a limited time.

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Credits:

Director, Producer, Writer: Melissa Haizlip. Co-Director: Sam Pollard. Co-Producer: Doug Blush. Director of Cinematography: Hans Charles. Composer: Robert Glasper. Music Supervisor: Ed Gerrard. Executive Producers: Blair Underwood Chaz Ebert and Stan Lathan.