Melissa Haizlip directed documentary about her uncle, Ellis Haizlip, pioneering host of "America's first 'Black Tonight Show'"
Mr. Soul!, the award-winning documentary about remarkable television host Ellis Haizlip and his pioneering show SOUL!, is connecting with moviegoers in the virtual space.
The film directed by Melissa Haizlip, Ellis' niece, remains available in more than 60 cinemas heading into its second month of virtual release [for a full list of theaters, click here]. Mr. Soul! documents the significance of Ellis Haizlip's unprecedented variety show, described as "America's first 'Black Tonight Show.'" It aired on public television in New York from 1968 to 1973, hosted by the diminutive and openly gay Haizlip. An extraordinary array of leading African-American cultural figures appeared on the program, including Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, Betty Shabazz (widow of Malcolm X), Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Cicely Tyson, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Odetta, and Bill Withers, among many others.
SOUL! was the first national show to provide expanded images of African Americans on television, shifting the gaze from inner-city poverty and violence to the vibrancy of the Black Arts Movement.
"It's been beautiful to see and hear from viewers around the nation who are both entertained and uplifted by our film, and inspired as they discover Mr. SOUL!," Melissa Haizlip said in a press release provided to Nonfictionfilm.com, "Sharing my uncle's story and the legacy of his groundbreaking show is super important right now... [I]t allows more people to discover Ellis Haizlip's life and the impact that SOUL! had on our country, both then and now, during this pivotal moment."
The voice of Ellis Haizlip in the film is provided by actor Blair Underwood, who also executive produced the documentary. Belafonte, poet Nikki Giovanni, and Dr. Alvin Poussaint, who co-hosted SOUL! in its earliest days, are among those interviewed for the film.
Mr. Soul!, co-produced by Doug Blush, has won numerous awards since its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, including Best Music Documentary at the IDA Awards in 2018, and Best Feature Documentary at the Woodstock Film Festival, Urbanworld Film Festival, Pan African Film Festival, Out on Film Atlanta, and the Martha's Vineyard African-American Film Festival. It also won the Audience Award at the AFI Docs Festival and was a finalist for the Inaugural Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize For Film.
"SOUL!, guided by the enigmatic producer and host Ellis Haizlip, offered an unfiltered, uncompromising celebration of Black literature, poetry, music, and politics—voices that had few other options for national exposure, and, as a result, found the program an improbable place to call home," the film's website states. "The series was among the first to provide expanded images of African Americans on television, shifting the gaze from inner-city poverty and violence to the vibrancy of the Black Arts Movement."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.