In 1968, you couldn’t turn on the television, listen to the radio, or read something in print without seeing a White face. Even during the Civil Rights Movement, any presentation of the Black experience was almost always presented through a White lens. That is, until Soul! hit the airwaves and suddenly there were Black faces sharing their perspective on the world without outside influence or the need for candor. Produced by Ellis Haizlip, Soul! became the place where, one night a week, Americans could turn on their television to see and hear the unfiltered version of the Black experience. It would be transformative professionally for many and undoubtedly personally for all involved. Winner of the Critics Choice Documentary Awards for Best First Documentary Feature (of which this reviewer is a voting member) and on the 93rd Oscar shortlist for Original Song for “Show Me Your Soul,” Mr. Soul!’s first-time documentary director Melissa Haizlip explores the seminal work born from her Uncle Ellis from its genesis in 1968 to its racially-motivated cancellation after 130 episodes in 1973 due to political pressure.
In keeping with the style of Soul!, Haizlip does not touch on her uncle’s life unless providing context toward the show’s cultural significance. This means that the documentary, as a whole, focuses more on Ellis’s vision to create a program born of the Black experience in all its forms and genres, as well as the still-present influence. This may seem strange to those on the outside as Soul! is his creation and legacy, except Ellis never made Soul! about himself; working hard to keep the focus on the guests and their message. Initially, the show was supposed to be a Black variety show akin to The Tonight Show, but Ellis made it something entirely unique unto itself. As expressed through the documentary, Ellis infused Soul! with the spirit of theater, focusing more on the connection between artist and audience over his own personal ideologies. He invited performers like The Last Poets on to perform the controversial “Die Nigga!!!” on Public Broadcast Television, poets like Nikki Giovanni were given time to speak, elaborate dance numbers were choreographed with the theme of drug addiction alongside interviews with people like Georgia Jackson (mother of murdered activist George Jackson) and Kathleen Cleaver (former Minister of Information for the Black Panthers). There was no wrong way to be Black as far as Ellis was concerned, and you could tune in each week to discover some new aspect or thought or way of being. Given the turbulent times in which the show broadcast, having a place that was intrinsically Black allowed the Black community to see themselves presented as people of Earth rather than as the violent criminals, troublemakers, or degenerates the media implied in its coverage. Haizlip makes it plain that while her uncle possessed his own sense of politics, his perspective on Soul! was to keep it outside of him and focused on all the various creative art created by the Black community.
Mr. Soul! is an effulgent and joyous celebration of the life-changing Public Broadcasting program. Haizlip achieves this via a mixture of talking head interviews with crew and guests that are often tied to archived footage, enabling the audience to actually take in the production in a then-and-now presentation. Doing so grounds the documentary as not just a token honorarium for Ellis, but as an in-depth look at the cultural impact of the program. This means hearing from Giovanni herself, who, at one point, discusses how she was able to engage in a one-on-one interview on an episode of Soul! with author James Baldwin because of her working relationship with Ellis. It’s learning that Kool & the Gang got their first television appearance on Soul! and that Ashford & Simpson got their first real break thanks to the show. It’s not until late in the documentary that musician/actor Questlove of The Roots shares his thoughts on the program, making it plain what influence Soul! had on him. Imagine for a moment what pop culture might be like without Questlove and you may have a small sense of what things would be like without Soul!.
If there is a downside to the documentary, it’s that Ellis himself is rarely quoted, requiring others to infer meaning on the variety of conversations or experiences he had. Haizlip, however, found a way to include her uncle’s words indirectly as transitions between points of focus via narration from actor Blair Underwood (Netflix’s Dear White People), who serves as the voice of Ellis. These quotations and the few portions of family photos or videos are the only glimpses into Ellis’s personal life and, while not particularly deep, provide enough information on the esteemed creative for the audience to understand his particular choices for the direction of Soul!. Considering that Ellis himself was never the specific reason audiences tuned in (again, the show was never about him specifically), Mr. Soul! following in the same narrative path makes appropriate sense. As an audience, we may want to learn more about Ellis than what Haizlip offers, but, like the show itself, the work speaks for itself.
It’s safe to say that 2020 can be boiled down to one word: virulent. The pandemic may be the first to come to mind, but it’s not the reason for the bitterness; no, that comes to the boiling over of frustrations from the Black community after the repeated violence and degradation at the hands of our government. For some, the aggrieved are nothing more than rioters, looters, and thugs more interested in tearing down their neighbor than building something better. To those, I would ask you to look to your history. Not the one erased from the text books, but the one engrained in our society. The one which clearly shows the numerous attempts to subjugate or control any kind of progress in the Black community. Amid the frustration, though, there is opportunity. Opportunity to learn, to grow, to change offered by a litany of fabulous documentaries — Amazon’s All In: The Fight for Democracy and Time, IFC Film’s MLK/FBI — and especially Mr. Soul!. Each one offers a different lens of the Black experience, which, if combined, help to elucidate the complex social relationship between Black Americans and the rest of the country.
Available in select drive-in theaters, on VOD, and digital now.
For more information, head to the official Mr. Soul! website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.