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‘Mr. Soul!’ celebrates radical creativity

“Mr. Soul!” (2018 production, 2020 release). Cast: Interviews: Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson, Amiri Baraka, Harry Belafonte, Kathleen Cleaver, Carmen De Lavallade, David Leeming, Nikki Giovanni, Dr. Harold G. Haizlip, Stan Lathan, Felipe Luciano, Christopher Lukas, Melba Moore, Novella Nelson, Dr. Alvin Poussaint, Dr. Billy Taylor, Robert J. Thompson. Archive Footage: Ellis Haizlip, Mohammad Ali, Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, Louis Farrakhan, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston, Kool & the Gang, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, Patti Labelle, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Delfonics, Black Ivory, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Georgia Jackson, Al Green, Anna Maria Horsford, Maya Angelou, Bill Withers, Earth Wind & Fire, Hugh Masekela, The Last Poets, Roberta Flack, Stokely Carmichael, Arsenio Hall, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, Richard Nixon. Narrator: Blair Underwood. Directors: Melissa Haizlip and Samuel D. Pollard. Writer: Melissa Haizlip. Web site. Trailer.

Many of us tend to think of creativity in lofty terms, that it’s something to be admired and appreciated largely for its purely aesthetic attributes. And that’s certainly all well and good, as it can move us profoundly. But there are times when creativity can do more – much, much more. It can have an impact that inspires not only its creators, but also those who look upon it in awe and wonder, perhaps even enough to change minds and collective thinking in revolutionary ways. In that regard, the influence it wields can be truly radical, as was the case with an innovative but today little-known 1960s television series profiled in the excellent new documentary, “Mr. Soul!”

The American television industry in the 1960s aggressively promoted its latest technological advancement – broadcasting in color. But, of all the hues available, there was one that dominated over all others – white, at least when it came to the color of the characters in its programming and the demographic segment of the viewing audience to which it appealed. Minorities were virtually nowhere to be seen. This neglect was particularly true for the Black community. With the exceptions of sporting events, the Diahann Carroll sitcom Julia (1968-1971) and occasional guest spots by “acceptable” entertainers of color (such as Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne) on variety shows, African-Americans otherwise typically appeared only in news reports about riots and poverty. This had to change, but how would that come about?

The answer rested with National Educational Television (NET), the forerunner of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). As a government-funded organization, NET had an obligation to serve the people – all the people – including those whose voices were underrepresented or not being heard. This was the ideal venue for the Black community to take its place in the world of broadcasting.

As the first Black producer at New York’s NET affiliate, WNDT (later WNET), Ellis Haizlip was approached by station management to see if he would be interested in developing a program focused on the African-American community, particularly in the areas of arts and entertainment. In essence, the broadcast was envisioned as a Black version of The Tonight Show. Having experience with staging theatrical productions while attending Howard University, as well as putting on concerts and plays in Europe and the Middle East with the likes of Marlene Dietrich and James Baldwin, Haizlip was well positioned (and extremely well connected) to take on the task of producing the newly envisioned show. And so, before long, with funding support from NET and The Ford Foundation, Haizlip was off and running. The new series, Soul!, was about to change the face of television.

As an experienced producer, Haizlip was content to remain behind the scenes. His specialty was providing the means for his artists to perform at their best, enabling them to enjoy the limelight they so deserved; he did not want to do anything that would draw attention away from them. So, when it came time to select a host, Haizlip willingly stepped aside, opting to hand over the show to noted Harvard psychologist Dr. Alvin Poussaint. However, as an educator, Poussaint was not suited for the job of TV host. The torch then passed to the producer’s cousin, Dr. Harold G. Haizlip, also an educator, but, again, the fit wasn’t right. With no options left, the responsibility fell to Haizlip himself, who took on the job reluctantly.

Even though Haizlip was experienced as a producer, he was not trained as an interviewer. He was somewhat reserved and rather cerebral, qualities one wouldn’t readily consider integral to being a television show host. And, as he initially assumed the position, he was noticeably awkward and lacked charisma. However, as time passed, he grew into the job, a development aided by the phenomenal array of guests that he and his staff assembled to appear in every episode of the program. What’s more, since he made it possible for his guests to shine in their own right, their performances helped to camouflage whatever deficiencies he may have had in the role of host. Most importantly, though, even as he developed as a host, he did the same for Soul! that he did for all of his prior productions – he let the talent show their stuff and never upstaged their work. He was indeed an impresario but one without a need to stand out himself or to let his ego get in the way.

What was most impressive, though, was the work he accomplished through his stint with Soul! He helped launch the careers of countless emerging Black artists in music, literature, poetry, dance and acting, while also featuring established figures in those areas. This was revolutionary not only for the fact that the show featured Afrocentric artists, but also that it included segments on things like poetry and dance at all, arts that mainstream television completely overlooked. No one would have seen programming like this on the three major networks of the day.

Haizlip’s lineups were truly impressive. During the show’s run, he featured musical performances by the likes of Ashford & Simpson, Harry Belafonte, Melba Moore, Dr. Billy Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston, Kool & the Gang, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, Patti Labelle, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Delfonics, Black Ivory, Al Green, Bill Withers, Earth Wind & Fire, Hugh Masekela, Roberta Flack, Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield. Among the actors and actresses who appeared were Novella Nelson, Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Arsenio Hall and dancer Carmen De Lavallade. Poets and authors played a major role, too, including Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, The Last Poets, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Haizlip also gave a voice to African-American politicians and activists at a time when it was difficult for them to be heard. He made it a point not to restrain them, either, allowing them to speak their minds and express their frustration, something that never would have made it on the air on the networks. He featured interviews with the likes of Kathleen Cleaver (wife of Eldridge Cleaver and Communications Secretary of the Black Panther Party), Georgia Jackson (activist and mother of deceased Black revolutionary George Jackson) and Stokely Carmichael (civil rights activist and organizer of the Pan-African movement). Haizlip also engaged in on-air conversations with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and with boxer Mohammad Ali, who, at the time, was fighting attempts at being drafted for service in Vietnam due to his conscientious objector status.

Given that Soul! was featuring programming found nowhere else on TV, it developed a captive audience with its core viewership. It’s estimated that 65% of the nation’s African-American community tuned in for its weekly broadcasts from 1968 to 1973. This immense popularity truly set its ratings apart from those of mainstream network offerings, quite a feat at a time when viewing options were considerably more limited. But, with such a devoted following, why did it only last five seasons?

Because Haizlip was willing to give voice to his guests, this practice did not always set well with large segments of mainstream society. While Black viewers were taking tremendous pride in having their uncensored views finally heard, it made others uncomfortable, most notably many White Americans. They were afraid of what the show’s more controversial guests might stir up, especially at a time of tremendous racial volatility. Haizlip himself was somewhat controversial, too, given that he wasn’t afraid to admit that he was an openly gay man, a rare commodity in mainstream society at the time. Many were concerned about what NET/PBS might be unleashing through this “dangerously” provocative show, especially since it was being funded with taxpayer dollars.

With the election of President Richard Nixon in 1968, the U.S. began taking a more conservative turn in its politics in the wake of the turmoil of the now-waning decade, and the new Chief Executive was only too willing to comply with this change. Little by little, alternative voices of all kinds – but especially in the Black community – were being quietly but systematically squelched. Funding for community programming in all areas was being cut, and eventually that included minority broadcasting efforts. And Soul!, unfortunately, became the prime target. In 1973, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting announced that the show would not be included in its funding allocations for the forthcoming year.

Because of the show’s popularity, many wondered why such a seemingly successful production would be cut off in its prime. There was considerable speculation, though no definitive answer was forthcoming – that is, until the release of this film, which includes an excerpt from Nixon’s infamous Oval Office tapes in which he and his advisors openly discussed how to silence Black voices in the media. In an effort to make African-Americans invisible once again, that discussion eventually led to the decision to cut the funding for minority broadcasting like Soul!, no matter how successful such programming might have been.

However, even though Soul! had a shorter run than most would say it deserved, it opened a door for the future. Were it not for that groundbreaking series, American television never would have seen the emergence of programming like The Arsenio Hall Show and The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as the many comedy and dramatic offerings featuring Black performers in lead and supporting roles.

That’s the legacy that “Mr. Soul!” celebrates. Through interviews with some of Haizlip’s guests (Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson, Amiri Baraka, Harry Belafonte, Kathleen Cleaver, Carmen De Lavallade, Nikki Giovanni, Melba Moore, Novella Nelson and Dr. Billy Taylor) and collaborators (Stan Lathan, Felipe Luciano and Christopher Lukas), as well as those who have assessed the program’s social impact (such as Robert J. Thompson, Syracuse University media analyst, and David Leeming, biographer of Haizlip’s friend James Baldwin), viewers gain eye-opening insights into the significance of the show and the man who brought it to life. The wealth of extremely well-preserved archive footage is astounding and is alone easily worth the price of the ticket. But, above all, this picture preserves the memory of a production that made so much possible on so many fronts, one that, were it not for this film, might have easily been lost to history.

As many of the interview subjects in the film observe, Soul! was a truly radical undertaking, and Haizlip was himself a quiet revolutionary. He dared do things with the show that no one else in the industry was willing to touch. That’s because he believed in the possibility of this project and committed to make it happen. In that sense, he proved himself to be a master of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon our thoughts, beliefs and intents in manifesting the reality we experience. And, even if he never heard of it, it was obvious that he had learned how to deftly employ its principles.

Chief among his accomplishments was his knack for breaking through barriers. His ability to envision the untried and then bring it into being showed just how skillful he was in questioning the conventional and subsequently obliterating the limitations that hold us back. He gave expression to the unexpressed, with results that stunned and impressed audiences, which, in turn, helped to change minds and reshape public thinking. That’s no small feat.

Haizlip’s ability to accomplish this provided opportunities to those who might not otherwise get them. One need only look to the list of entertainers, authors and activists who may never have had a chance to make themselves and their talents known. But that was not his only achievement in this regard; he made comparable opportunities available to those who worked on the show’s production staff. In addition to giving jobs to African-Americans, he hired a significant number of women to work on the show, some of whom freely admit in the film that this was a major breakthrough for them. They contend that, although many of them had actively participated in the civil rights movement earlier in the decade, they tired of the fact that it was largely a sexist undertaking. Minorities may have assumed all of the important roles, but those positions were nearly always reserved for men. Haizlip changed that. He believed in them and made it happen on the job front.

To that end, Soul! was an excellent example of a successful co-creation, one in which all of the participants pooled their energies, collectively and fervently working toward fulfilling a common goal. That kind of commitment can make a powerful statement, regardless of the undertaking. But, in this case, the enthusiasm that the collaborators brought to the project and the faith they had in its success epitomize what can result from this kind of zealous cooperation. Would-be joint venturers could learn a lot from this example.

Haizlip accomplished something else worthy of note – he shared his talents, abilities and resources in aiding others without any expectation of personal glory for his efforts. This kind of selflessness is rarely seen in an industry characterized by enormous egos and petty retribution for a lack of reciprocity. In many ways, this was a prime example of the concept of paying it forward. It worked wonders and contributed immensely to the show’s and Haizlip’s success. Having been given the opportunity to produce this series, its creator freely gave back, showing tremendous gratitude for such good fortune, something that made it possible for him to extend the favor to others. That’s a quality sorely lacking in many undertakings today, and we as a society could benefit tremendously by following that lead.

In the end, Haizlip’s experience indicates that, in producing this show, he vigorously practiced the conscious creation principle known as value fulfillment, the notion associated with us being our best, truest selves to benefit ourselves and the world at large. One could say it was his destiny to create Soul! and the impact it had on so many fronts. But, in addition to the influence the project had, it also appeared to give its creator tremendous joy. And, as I once read in a Chinese fortune cookie, “There is no greater joy than creation.” Haizlip clearly relished his role in this and left a mark that continues to resonate even today.

This excellent, informative and entertaining documentary tells a truly captivating story. In addition to paying homage to the show, “Mr. Soul!” presents a fitting tribute to its creator and host, a pioneer whose attainments have not been recognized as widely as they should have been. The film’s expertly assembled collection of interview footage, archive material, and voiceover segments featuring Haizlip’s writings and observations (narrated by actor Blair Underwood) combine to form a kaleidoscopic portrait of a man and his work that truly helped change the world. And its message is still relevant today as we contend with these challenging times. The timing of its release couldn’t be more appropriate, and, even though Haizlip may have been gone for nearly 30 years, one can’t help but wonder whether his spirit has played a role in making this happen at a time when it’s desperately needed, perhaps now more than ever.

Those who have never heard of Haizlip or Soul! owe it to themselves to see this superb release. This 2018 production has largely played at film festivals over the past two years, but, thankfully, it is now available for online streaming.

Sometimes the greatest contributions to our lives and cultures come from those who seem to be the unlikeliest of contributors. At first glance, Ellis Haizlip might have appeared to some as one such example. His reserved demeanor, cerebral perspective and desire to work behind the scenes were qualities that many would not have looked upon as being integral to inspiring groundbreaking accomplishments. Yet he did just that, and in more ways than one can count. That’s radical transformation at work – something we could use more of these days. One can only hope that there are aspiring visionaries out there who will be so moved by this film that they’re eager to follow suit – and change the world in their own way.

Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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