Indie Memphis 2018: ‘Mr. SOUL!’
In the late 60’s through early 70’s the American had a wide spectrum of white people to watch on TV. That was until a visionary producer named Ellis Haizlip was given the opportunity on public television to create a show for the African American community. That series was a variety show called, SOUL!. Haizlip used this platform to not only speak to issues impacting the black community but to shine a spotlight on African American; artists, poets, musicians, and activists. With the Indie Memphis Film Festival shining a spotlight on black filmmakers this year, the documentary about Ellis Haizlip and his show entitled, Mr. SOUL! proved to be the perfect choice to open the festival.
Directed by Melissa Haizlip, the niece of the subject, Mr. SOUL! chronicles the series and the man behind it from the very beginnings until its abrupt ending in 1973. After a few hosts who did not pan out, Haizlip stepped out from behind the producer’s desk and took full charge of SOUL! and the rest was history as he got to be the public face of the show. Over it’s five year stint SOUL! featured a number of guests who have become icons of entertainment and many of them got their start here. No doubt viewers of Mr. SOUL! will easily recognize the likes of: Al Green, Sydney Poitier, Patti LaBelle, Earth, Wind & Fire, James Baldwin, and many others. What the documentary also brought up which was important were the performers who did not trade in commercially marketable arts such as slam poets and dancers. They were given a spotlight thanks to Haizlip they would not have received otherwise, and as one of them brings up in the film once SOUL! was cut down they lost an important platform for them to express themselves. The arts were only one aspect of what Haizlip brought to television, as Mr. SOUL! showed he had no problem tackling issues many found controversial or taboo head-on. A perfect example being when SOUL! brought Louis Farrakhan on as a guest and Haizlip challenged the Nation of Islam leader directly about his anti-homosexual views.
What Mr. SOUL! Succeeds in doing is telling the story of a man ahead of his time to a whole new generation. While the series Ellis Haizlip created may be obscure to many in a contemporary audience, this film does not alienate anyone and tells the story of why SOUL! was important in television history and legacy it left to this day. Melissa Haizlip executes this with a filmmaking style which is nothing short of cool and gels perfectly with the subject of the documentary. While Mr. SOUL! does feel a bit on the long side at some points of the film, it is far from dull and proves to be one of the most important documentaries of the year.