To be black is to survive an avalanche indefinitely. But to be black is also to propel forward that experience unapologetically––black seeds will only grow when excellence is an attitude, not an afterthought. If you are a black man, woman, or child, you can, and it’s this prideful conviction that Melissa Haizlip’s documentary Mr. SOUL! embodied to the fullest during its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22nd.
Before Trevor Noah or Oprah or Arsenio Hall, there was Ellis Haizlip, America’s first black television host. More than 40 years ago, his show Soul! embarked on a noble and urgent mission: to showcase the breadth and depth of the black experience without compromise or hesitancy. As shown in Mr. SOUL!, Haizlip was a pioneer and far ahead of his time, unparalleled (and perhaps still is) in terms of his interviews and the scope of artists he allowed on his show. Mr. SOUL! is a celebration of a man and a groundbreaking program that not only dealt with black culture “so completely, so freely, and so beautifully,” bringing black art to millions of screens across the nation, but also set the foundation for future generations of black achievement in the whitewashed world of entertainment and beyond, launching the careers of many famous black performers in the 20th century: Al Green, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Stevie Wonder, and countless others.
When SOUL! premiered in 1968, there was electricity in the air––lives were at stake, and the black consciousness was growing, deeply affecting the cultural mores of American society. It was a time when the visibility of blackness in the media was reduced to graffiti, riots, and inner-city violence, but SOULl! rode out the darkness and threw open the windows to let the color and vivacity of black art come in for the world to see. But SOULl! didn’t cater to white sensibilities––it was vital because it was so daring, so conspicuously black. Ellis and his show broke all the rules, talked about revolution, important issues in the community, welcomed controversy and tried to teach. From dancing to spoken word to R&B to doo-wop to jazz, all forms of black expression were embraced on SOUL! with a boundless love and communal self-worth that said it is in us to say what we have to say and to say it loud.
But Ellis wasn’t just an advocate for black equality. He set out to dismantle the patriarchy and injustice suffered by all shades of black, including the Latino community. “He understood the power of black women,” said Sonia Sanchez in the documentary, “Ellis was going to bring black women to the forefront.” Ellis’ vision was all-encompassing––while giving women like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Novella Nelson, Marion Williams and Nikki Giovanni a platform on live television, he also made an effort to frequently feature Latino and Afro-Cuban musicians and seminal figures.
It was a very black evening on the day of the premiere, full of culture, community, celebration. Performances by legendary artists like The Last Poets, Robert Glasper, Ella Hathaway, and Kathleen Cleaver added to the triumphal mood of the crowd. People couldn’t help but cheer and applaud during the screening, but it felt quite appropriate considering the gravity of the documentary. How often is blackness made visible in film, even in mainstream culture? And when it is, how often is it empowering the black community, or remotely celebrating black achievement and not highlighting black suffering? Mr. SOUL! needed to come out when it did, how it did, and I can’t wait for everyone to see it.