Hot Docs Review: Mr SOUL! (2018, Sam Pollard, Melissa Haizlip)

ELLIS HAIZLIP, the Producer of the WNET/PBS weekly television show, "SOUL."  Set interview with Toni Morrison. 1972

Opening up with some archival footage of ads heralding the arrival of colour TV, Mr. SOUL! quickly makes the point that, while everything on TV could now be presented in full glorious colour, the programming itself was still overwhelmingly pretty white. The answer to this: SOUL!

Mr. SOUL! tells the story of the first black arts and culture program to be aired on American television. SOUL! was the brainchild of Ellis Haizlip, his singular vision being to provide a platform for black voices, voices that had not really been given much space on the airwaves up until that time. Originating from New York public broadcaster WNET and airing from 1968 – 1973, SOUL! seemed to consistently challenge itself and its audience from the get-go. Determined not to be just like any other TV show, Haizlip and his team at SOUL! tooled with the formula for awhile before ultimately deciding to just let Haizlip himself host the show.

Airing live much of the time, SOUL! presented many impressive musical performances – everyone from The Lost Poets to Ashford & Simpson to Stevie Wonder to Al Green. Along with many established big name performers, so many musicians were given their first chance on this show, many of them also being acts who wouldn’t have had a chance of being booked on a more mainstream program. One of my favourite stories from the film is Haizlip’s apparent answer upon being asked why he had booked avant-garde jazz saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk on the show: “Because he’s crazy.” It’s true – dude played like three saxes at once. Impressive.

In addition to music, poetry and dance were given equal footing on the show as well as political and cultural discussions – one episode, impressively enough, was just an hour of conversation between James Baldwin and poet Nikki Giovanni filmed in London, England since Baldwin had no interest in returning to America to do an interview. Oh, and also the show featured a 13 year old Arsenio Hall. Was he funny? Who knows – they didn’t really show any footage of him. Still, kinda cool.

Mr. SOUL! presents a loving portrait of a show that was gone all too soon. SOUL! may have been around for only a few years, but in that time, it certainly made an impact.

Screenings:
Sat, May 5, 6:00 PM @ Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

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Posted on by Paul in Hot Docs, Movies

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