Seeing Blacks on 1960s television was seldom positive. A lot of programming seemed to denigrate Black communities. There were too many scenes of disruption.
“When Black folks appeared in the news, it was a problem,” said award-winning documentarian Louis Massiah in one of the opening scenes of the documentary “Mr. Soul!” that airs Feb. 22 on PBS. (Check local listing)
The 1960s was the right time for Ellis Haizlip, a young man from Washington, D.C.’s Deanwood community to take what he had learned at Howard University to move to New York City where he became steeped in creative arts. The award-winning documentary “Mr. Soul!” is a love letter to Ellis which was produced, written and directed by his niece Melissa Haizlip. Through original footage and commentary from luminaries who supported Ellis in growing the television show, Melissa tells a story of curating the best of 1960s Black culture that was consumed by a receptive audience. Viewers hear the words of Ellis through actor Blair Underwood, a co-producer of the documentary.
From 1968 to 1973, “Soul!” aired on National Education Television (NET), the network of local stations that preceded PBS. Local NET stations produced Black audience programs during the mid-to-late 1960s like “Black Journal,” “Say Brother,” “Like It Is” and “Talking Black.” These programs were either documentaries or interview discussion-type shows. During this period, “Talking Black” may have been considered the only program that captured the feeling of Black consciousness during the period. Christopher Lukas, producer and co-creator of “Soul!,” was at the NET station in New York when he realized there was no diversity at the station. He worked with Ellis and sensed from him a different view of Black people that was not seen on television. Lukas felt only negative Black images and stories were viewed on television.
Lukas had an idea. He imagined a Black version of “The Tonight Show” and shared his idea with Ellis. Ellis had a different perspective. He felt whatever was produced for a Black New York audience, it needed to be deeper, jazzier and more controversial. That was the premise behind “Soul!”
“Ellis wanted to legitimate all the variety of expression in the arts particularly in the Black community,” said Harold C. Haizlip, Ed.D., cousin to Ellis and an early “Soul!” host. “That’s not ‘The Tonight Show.’ That’s not the format.”
Everything Black is ‘Soul!’
Melissa’s documentary about her uncle delivers precious Black culture gems which was the essence of “Soul!” Original hosts were Alvin Poussaint, M.D. the psychiatrist and Loretta Long, Ph.D., known later as a regular cast member on “Sesame Street.” The paring was interesting, it became clear that Ellis needed to be the host.
Music was always present on “Soul!” from the likes of Ashford and Simpson, Al Green, Odetta, Carmen McRae, Hugh Masekela and Stevie Wonder. Literary readings and poetry came from Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison and The Last Poets. Modern dance and ballet performed in the studio came from Carmen de Lavallade, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and George Faison. Then there were thoughtful, conversations with guests like James Baldwin, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) co-founder Julian Bond, Black Communications Secretary Kathleen Cleaver, SNCC ex-chairman Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan. The concept for “Soul!” worked. It was live television with a lot of curse words.
“The moment that went on television, it went, ‘Boom. Ain’t we bad?,” said Sanchez. “You walked down the street and you were dripping badness.”
Ellis revolutionized how television was produced. He exposed to wide audience people who were previously known only to smaller discreet audiences. He helped launch the careers of author, screenwriter and producer Khephra Burns, documentarians Massiah and Stanley Nelson and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris.
Too Much of a Good Thing
The success of “Soul!” drew disdain, including threats of reduced Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding for programming aimed at Black audiences. But Haizlip, who grew up on Sheriff Road in the District’s Deanwood community and graduated from Dunbar High School, had a clear vision.
“We are trying to create shows of Black love, Black strength, Black encouragement, and we hope you agree with what’s going down,” Ellis once said directly into the camera.