It was the blackest, most brilliant and beautiful evening I’ve spent in a long time—which is a pretty high bar, since I work, live and play with brilliant, beautiful black people every day.
But Sunday night’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Mr. Soul!, the highly anticipated documentary on storied black variety show Soul!, was both an enlightening and inspiring experience. With the likes of Sonia Sanchez, Meshell Ndegeocello, Melba Moore, the Last Poets, Lalah Hathaway, Robert Glasper, Kathleen Cleaver and producer Blair Underwood among the sea of predominantly black excellence in attendance, it was instantly clear that it would be an evening as rich with culture as with community.
In the few years before Soul Train debuted in 1971, Soul! aired in many East Coast markets from 1968 to 1973 on the National Education Television Service (now known as WNET). It was a showcase for black artists of all mediums and the brainchild of producer and eventual host Ellis Haizlip, a product of both Howard University and the Black Arts Movement of the ’60s in Harlem. Mr. Soul! is a tribute to Haizlip’s genius, advocacy and mentorship of black talent.
Co-directed by Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated documentarian Samuel D. Pollard and Haizlip’s niece, award-winning filmmaker Melissa Haizlip—who also wrote the film—Mr. Soul! chronicles Soul!’s creation and rise in tandem with the biography of Ellis Haizlip (who died in 1991), featuring both historical context and interviews by a wealth of black luminaries who appeared on the show, including Harry Belafonte, Carmen de Lavallade and the late Amiri Baraka.
Speaking with Women and Hollywood, Melissa Haizlip said:
I’ve always been drawn to tell this story. I have wanted to make this film for my entire life, having a deep personal connection to the story. ... I’ve wanted to tell Ellis Haizlip’s story, and examine how culture shapes movements of change. I was also drawn to the duality of our main character, who, at a tumultuous time in history, navigated the worlds of being Black and openly gay against the backdrop of a swiftly changing American landscape.
Exploring Ellis Haizlip’s identity also becomes a telling metaphor for how he was, in almost every aspect of his life, seemingly far ahead of his time. His vision and boundless love for blackness—and for black women and black women’s voices, in particular—made him a standout among the homophobia and patriarchy that permeated much of the otherwise progressive black liberation movements.
“He understood the power of black women,” said Sonia Sanchez, reminiscing on a groundbreaking all-female episode of Soul! “Ellis was going to bring black women to the forefront.”
“The primary purpose of Soul! is neither to educate nor entertain but to allow people to share in the black experience,” Haizlip once said. But while he is the centerpiece of Mr. Soul!, the scene-stealers are the incredible performances, culled from the WNET archives and encompassing the Diaspora.
From the Last Poets—who performed an uncensored “Die Nigga!!!” in an early episode—to Miriam Makeba, Al Green, Stevie Wonder and a baby-faced Nikki Giovanni interviewing James Baldwin, the sheer breadth of the talent showcased was a testament to the myriad iterations of blackness in the world.
Notably, Soul! also gave several of our best-known performers their first television appearances, including Kool & the Gang and Ashford & Simpson—who credit Ellis Haizlip with much of their success. Watching these legendary performances on-screen, the crowd assembled at Tribeca repeatedly applauded as if we were in Soul!’s live studio audience, often murmuring our assent with those on-screen and leaping to our feet as soon as the credits began to roll.
But the revelry didn’t end there; the screening was followed by performances from the film’s composer Robert Glasper, the incredible Lalah Hathaway (whose father, Donny, performed on Soul!), lawyer and activist Kathleen Cleaver, and a reunion of the Last Poets, who reminded us what will happen “When the Revolution Comes.”
Mr. Soul! was funded largely through Melissa Haizlip’s own “for us, by us” fundraising and crowdfunding efforts, including grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts and Black Public Media. Aside from being a loving family tribute, the film represents a creative milestone for Haizlip. Like her uncle, she recognizes that she may still be ahead of her time. Speaking on being a female director, she shared these sage words with Women and Hollywood:
My advice to other female directors is to always remember you’re a director first, not just a “female director.” Times are changing, but not fast enough. So never give up either your vision or your title, especially if you’re helming a project with another director who happens to be male.
Women have been taught to over-apologize and over-accommodate, and it’s time to reset the narrative. There’s room for all of us. It’s time to make our voices heard, so keep rising.