Review: ‘Mr. SOUL!’

Hot Docs 2018

4 mins read

Dir. Sam Pollard & Melissa Haizlip
USA, 102 minutes
Special Presentations (International Premiere)

Mr. SOUL! weaves together two stories; the development of SOUL! the television show, and the personal evolution of producer and host Ellis Haizlip. SOUL! was a nationally televised weekly variety show that aired from 1968-1973, featuring prominent and emerging Black artists including poets, classical, pop and jazz musicians, dancers and political figures. The show was broadcast on public television across a post-Civil Rights Movement America, showcasing the diversity and talent of Black artistry and providing a platform for radical Black politics.

SOUL! upended the traditional format of the talk show, creating an almost cabaret-like atmosphere. Regularly programming poetry and spoken word artists from Nikki Giovanni to Sonia Sanchez as well as contemporary dancers and theatre makers, the diversity in form was unprecedented on mainstream television. The breadth of artistry, the incredible sets, beautiful cinematography and the immediacy of the audience are all distinct features of _SOUL!_ The film features an archive of treasures, powerful performances by Stevie Wonder, Patti Labelle, Gladys Knight and Al Green. However, the footage that really stands out is the political vehemence of guests like The Last Poets, James Baldwin, members of the Black Panther Party and a Vietnam War-denouncing Muhammad Ali that speak truth to power with such strength, precision and force it feels radical even for today.

Ellis Haizlip started out as the show’s producer, but he quickly took on the responsibility of host after a few colleagues failed to acclimatize to the role. Ellis’ natural charisma and genuine interest in his guests make him a very dynamic and candid host. As the show’s driving force, you get the sense that Haizlip was not just the producer and host, but a very careful curator with an eye (and ear) for the vanguard, the political and the spectacular. The film has a palpable intimacy, the forthrightness of close friends and family and the loving way it follows Haizlip growing up, enmeshed in the artistic community he would later share with audiences. Haizlip’s sexuality as a gay man is unfurled without hyperbole. The film does not exploit his gayness or delve into any tawdry details about his relationships. Rather, it acknowledges his sexuality as being an important part of who he was and how he developed a far-reaching chosen family whom he championed fearlessly. He is also shown challenging his own community, asking Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan about homosexuality in the movement. It came as no surprise to learn co-director Melissa Haizlip is the niece of protagonist Ellis, having grown up surrounded by the incredible cast of characters he would bring into the family home. The tenderness she shows her uncle is unwavering and you can’t help falling in love with Ellis Haizlip the man, the host and visionary of SOUL! , a legacy which was cut short much too soon.


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