‘Mr. Soul!’ Review: An Oscar-Buzz Documentary Looks Back at a Thrilling, and Revolutionary, Slice of Black American Television History
In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron recorded his famous poem-song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” But that anthemic line, as forceful as it was, has been proved wrong time and again. Two years earlier, starting on Sept. 12, 1968, the revolution was televised, in a captivating and astounding way.
“Mr. Soul!” is a documentary that’s been gathering steam and generating Oscar buzz, and when you see it (which you really should), you’ll know why. The entire film tells the story of a TV program, one that was rich, fearless, eye-opening, and boldly idiosyncratic enough to stir up the culture. It was called “Soul!,” and staking out its turf on WNET in New York, it was the first Black variety show on American television. That alone made it a landmark. But “Soul!,” as orchestrated by its creator, executive producer, and host, the awesomely unlikely TV personality Ellis Haizlip, was no cautious groundbreaker. It was an electrifying popular-music showcase, an avant funk coffeehouse, a high cathedral of poetry and dance, and a deadly serious talkfest. It was a living-room party that was also a weekly insurrection.
When you hear about the roster of musical guests who appeared on it — Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, the Delfonics, the raw young Earth, Wind & Fire, and on and on — you may think, “Okay, I get it. It was the PBS ‘Soul Train’.” That aspect is undeniably there, and it was enough to make the show an intoxicating hit. Yet “Soul!” was more than a heady live R&B jamboree. It mixed in authors and political figures and poets of the most incendiary kind. In one clip, we see a scalding performance by the Last Poets of a work called “Die, N—–a!!!” that invokes the deaths of Medgar Evans, Emmett Till, and others and ends with the lacerating line “Die, n—–s! So Black folks can take over!” This was in-your-face, it was risky, it was combustible, it was a shock to the system.
That “Soul!” was usually live gave it an immediacy not associated with the words “public television.” The show couldn’t be interrupted or censored. The musical performers headed where they wanted (Stevie Wonder did a rendition of “Superstition” that went on and on, building and building), in marked contrast to “Soul Train,” which debuted three years later and, as great as it was, basically presented a parade of star acts lip-syncing to their latest hits. “Soul!” arrived on the cutting edge of a Black cultural renaissance, and it broadcast the waves of that movement, in all their fervor and radical pride.
“Mr. Soul!” sets up the chilling context for it. In the late ’60s, African-Americans were all but invisible on national television, except for on the news media, where they were usually depicted in a negative light. The news programs tended to show riots, poverty, and garbage-strewn streets. Ellis Haizlip saw something different: a universe of Black art and life blooming all over America.
Yet Haizlip, who put “Soul!” together with the producer Christopher Lukas (Haizlip came up with the name; Lukas added the exclamation point), and is the real subject of the documentary (it was written and directed by his niece, Melissa Haizlip), unleashed all this upon the public with ineffable cunning. Haizlip wasn’t someone who was put on earth to be on TV. He was a producer, with roots in the theater, who agreed to host the show only as a last-ditch plan when none of its original hosts (like the Harvard psychiatry professor Dr. Alvin Poussaint) panned out.
With his horn-rims and long mustache, Haizlip looked like Shaft’s accountant brother, and he had the air of a professor with a sly, recessive cat-like deadpan. He spoke in a rarefied, whimsical, but never overly academic way that allowed him to stand apart from the proceedings and, at the same time, to invent his very own only-on-PBS anti-TV-star aura; he presided over the show like Don Cornelius as a scholarly cocktail host. That Haizlip was gay was, in a sense, incidental to his achievement. Yet beneath his gracious calm façade, his identity as an out and open gay man before Stonewall gave him a silent core of militancy. He was going to stay true to his mission, and he did it with such slicing directness that no one knew what hit them.
TV talk and variety shows from decades ago are among our greatest cultural time capsules. To watch a “Tonight Show” from the ’60s, a “Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” from the ’70s, a “Phil Donahue Show” from the ’80s, or an “Arsenio Hall Show” from the ’90s is to dive back into a moment, to catch the elusive vibe of a time. Some of us can consume endless hours of this stuff, and in “Mr. Soul!,” the clips from “Soul!” exert a thrilling fascination, to the point that you wish you could just plunge in and watch every episode. There are extraordinary clips of B.B. King ripping it up, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson performing for the first time (it was Haizlip’s idea to have them come out from the shadow of their identities as songwriters, and that segment launched their second career), James Baldwin letting down his hipster hair in a two-hour interview with the poet Nikki Giovanni, Al Green singing in a way where he almost seems to be apologizing for how sexy he is, Amiri Baraka reading a furious poem in which he excoriates drug dealers who “put shit in your arm and your mama’s tears,” and Wilson Pickett and Marion Williams teaming up for a rendition of “Oh Happy Day” that transforms the studio audience into a gospel revival meeting.
The professor and television historian Robert J. Thompson claims that “for all its mellow presentation, this was blowing the lid off the generic expectations of American television.” Haizlip, says Felipe Luciano of the Last Poets, “already knew that Black culture was world culture.” The poet Sonia Sanchez says, “What he was doing, every night he was on that program, was changing someone’s mind about Black folks.” Yet it was part of Haizlip’s quiet strategy to underplay the stirring of the pot. He took what looked, on the surface, like a staid PBS niche and turned it into a call to arms, a call to Black cultural force and sway.
The show lasted five years, during which it lived and thrived, becoming a beacon for African-Americans. And then it faded out? Not quite. It was, in essence, killed by the Nixon administration, which was growing tired of what it saw as liberal media subversion. Emboldened by his top-heavy victory in the 1972 election, Nixon spearheaded a drive to crack down on PBS, tamping down on the funding, and “Soul!” was a casualty of that crusade. Haizlip didn’t try to fight it. He was very zen about the end of his show; he thought if its time was over, then so be it. (He continued to promote African American culture and died in 1991.)
But the movie sees it differently. “Soul!,” as the film’s fantastic closing montage expresses, was a show that lit countless small fires in the hearts and minds of African Americans (and probably more than a few white folks). Questlove, speaking near the end of the documentary, hails the show as “true Black power, right there.” He adds, “Today, some 50 years later, can you imagine what ‘Soul!’ would have been like for a 20-year run? Like, how different would our lives have been?” “Mr. Soul!” is an enthralling testament to a show that was so far ahead of its time it now looks like a bulletin. One that hasn’t aged a day.