By Neenah Payne
On Thursday, September 24 at 7 pm (ET), the Jacob Burns Film Center will host a live virtual conversation with Melissa Haizlip who conceived, directed, and produced the award-winning documentary Mr. Soul! The film tells the story of Soul!, the iconic television show broadcast on public television from 1968 until 1973, and its remarkable creator and host Ellis Haizlip.
Soul! showcased African American music, dance, and literature in a way that had never been done before on TV. Soul! was a pioneering performance/variety television program produced by WNDT, a New York City NET and PBS outlet which later became WNET. The program was funded in part by the Ford Foundation which characterized Soul! as “the only nationally televised weekly series oriented to the black community and produced by blacks.”
Soul!’s viewership was enormous. A 1968 Harris poll estimated that more than 65% of African American households watched it on a regular basis. In 1970, it was carried by 72 public television stations. Gayle Wald writes that,
Soul! offered viewers radical ways of imagining—of hearing, feeling, and seeing—black community. Musically speaking, Soul! refused the division of black arts into high and low culture: the music of the concert hall versus the music of the Apollo. Soul! made room for both.
WNDT aired the first in a series of 39 one-hour programs on September 12, 1968. The show lasted until March 7, 1973. The people who appeared on the show included Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind, and Fire, the Dells, Ashford and Simpson, Al Green, Tito Puente, McCoy Tyner, Max Roach, Gladys Knight, The Delfonics, Kool & The Gang, Mandrill, and Black Ivory, African performers Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. Muhammad Ali, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, The Last Poets, and Kathleen Cleaver wife of Eldridge Cleaver.
Mr. Soul! Award-Winning Documentary!
The Soul! website says:
This variety-talk show featuring African-American artistry, community and culture was also a platform for political expression and the fight for social justice. It showcased live performances by funk, soul, jazz, and world musicians, and had in-depth interviews with figures from politics, sports, the literary world and more.
‘Soul!’ Brought Black Culture to TV in 1968. A New Doc Tells Its Story is a New York Times article that lavishes praise on the documentary. For people who lived through that era, the film is a stroll down memory lane. For millennials and others, it is a rich, fun data bank of history. Mr. Soul! is equal parts poignant and thought-provoking, exuberant, and hugely entertaining.
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On the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, from 1968 to 1973, Haizlip – black, proud, and gay – showcased the music, poetry, ideas, and people that were challenging an all-white establishment and redefining what it meant to be black in America. The film tells the story of the groundbreaking PBS series from its genesis to its eventual loss of funding against the backdrop of a swiftly changing political and social landscape, while profiling the man behind one of the most culturally significant television shows in U.S. history.
Save your space for the September 24 discussion: Register now for this free Zoom Q&A!
Live Virtual Discussion of Game-Changing Mr. Soul! Film on 9/24
Ellis broke the talk show and public television color barrier when he introduced “SOUL!,” the weekly program he hosted during the late ’60s and early ’70s, to PBS. Now, a half decade after the show debuted, his niece Melissa Haizlip revisits his legacy with the documentary “Mr. SOUL!” Melissa Haizlip is an actress, producer, director, and award-winning filmmaker. On September 24, the documentary Mr. Soul! will be the subject of a live virtual conversation at the Jacob Burns Film Center between Melissa and JBFC Board Chairman Emeritus Hugh Price.
History: Ellis Haizlip and Soul! points out:
Soul! was the brainchild of Ellis Haizlip, the first black producer at WNET (then WNDT), who joined the station in the mid-60s….Haizlip developed the notion of a program that would use the variety-show format (familiar from commercial fare such as The Ed Sullivan Show) to display the breadth and variety of black culture. Soul!’s mission would be not merely to entertain African American viewers, but to challenge them to ponder the possible meanings of black culture and black community at a time when African Americans were driving American social transformation.
Soul! bore the stamp of Haizlip’s visionary leadership, impeccable taste, and skill as a social connector.
A product of segregated Washington DC, Haizlip had witnessed contralto Marian Anderson’s legendary 1939 concert on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial. For him, opera singers, funk musicians, lyrical poets, and political revolutionaries were equal participants in the black cultural project. Haizlip’s philosophy was “it’s all our culture,” recalls actor Anna Maria Horsford, who worked as an associate producer at Soul! “It was a celebration. Look what we’ve produced in spite of….”
Today, the program he shepherded from idea to national hit remains one of the most successful and culturally significant black-produced television shows in U.S. history. Soul! had a depth of discourse and diversity of content that still has had no equal on the small screen.”
The Mr. Soul! discussion registration site says: “Before Oprah, before Arsenio, there was Mr. Soul! Ellis Haizlip ensures the Revolution will be televised with “SOUL!,” America’s first “Black Tonight Show.” From 1968 to 1973, the public-television variety show SOUL!, guided by the enigmatic, openly gay producer and host Ellis Haizlip, offered an unfiltered, uncompromising celebration of Black literature, poetry, music, and politics—voices that had few other options for national exposure, and, as a result, found the program an improbable place to call home. The series was among the first to provide expanded images of African Americans on television, shifting the gaze from inner-city poverty and violence to the vibrancy of the Black Arts Movement. With participants’ recollections and a bevy of great archival clips, Mr. Soul! captures a critical moment in culture whose impact continues to resonate.
The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts “The Tonight Show”
As Ellis Haizlip revolutionized the variety show, Harry Belafonte changed the late night talk show when he hosted The Tonight Show. ‘The Sit-In’: Revisit the ‘Lost’ Week in 1968 When Harry Belafonte Hosted ‘The Tonight Show’ discusses the new film on how Belafonte used his week hosting the popular Tonight Show to interview prominent Black Americans and other leading figures like Robert F. Kennedy.
In 1968, America was embroiled in protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War. In that tumultuous time, “The Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson turned over hosting duties for an entire week to actor and activist Harry Belafonte. His cast of guests included Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, just months before they were assassinated, during a week that’s been mostly lost in American history. Thankfully it’s now being revisited in a new Peacock documentary, executive produced by MSNBC host Joy Reid and directed by award-winning filmmaker Yoruba Richen, aptly titled “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show.
See the trailer and watch the film for free at: https://www.peacocktv.com/the-sit-in-harry-belafonte
The Washington Post article Peacock’s ‘The Sit-In’ recounts the amazing week in 1968 that Harry Belafonte took Johnny Carson’s place points out:
Belafonte – a superstar singer, actor and civil rights activist – took the opportunity to bring on an extraordinary range of Black artists and newsmakers and their White allies, from Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The guest list for that week, from Feb. 5 to 9, goes on: Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby, Indigenous folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, ventriloquist Aaron Williams and singer Freda Payne, among others….The documentary interviews Belafonte, now 93, and several of the entertainers who appeared on the “Tonight Show” with him that week….as well as present-day celebrities and culture writers about the impact Belafonte’s week had on American TV.
Civil Rights Movement to Human Rights Movement of 2020
Just as Soul! and The Sit-In spoke urgently and compellingly in a turbulent era when America was percolating politically and artistically, Mr. Soul! and The Sit-In films resonate powerfully with our times.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s challenged America to live up to the promises of The Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” While the racial divide remains strong in many ways, few would deny that the America of 2020 is vastly different from the America of the 1950s.
However, now the freedoms of all humanity are threatened in a way few could have imagined. In the 1960s, Black Americans stood up and called on America to live up to its creed. Mr. Soul! and The Sit-In revisit those historic times now. They invite us to reflect on the courage and ingenuity of Black Americans in the mid-20th century. They can inspire us to stand up today and protect our rights and freedoms as we face a global tyranny from which there may be no escape unless it is stopped now.
Read more from Neenah Payne and the current health and human rights crisis HERE.
Main image: https://www.mrsoulmovie.com/
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