SOUL! was a popular and legendary talk and variety show during the late 1960s. Most of the renowned artists of today got their start right on this show such as Arsenio Hall, Nikki Giovani, and Ashford and Simpson. The pioneer behind it all was Ellis Haizlip, who became the first African American broadcast journalist. Ellis had discussions from Muslim activist Louis Farrakhan to James Baldwin about the futures of the world. His niece, Melissa Haizlip, is the filmmaker for the recent film Mr. SOUL! This film takes one on a journey through the life of her legendary uncle Ellis Haizlip. Ellis paved the way for diversity among black community during an era where blacks had no voice on television.
ATM: Today, wherein broadcast journalism do you see snippets of Ellis’ legacy?
MH: You see it everywhere. Arsenio Hall made his television debut on the show at 16 doing magic tricks. He has had a lengthy career as a television host. Ellis paved the way for black hosts. Now, we have Oprah, Trevor Noah, and many other artists who can flourish and grow. There was a time when this was not possible. Ellis really bridged the gap for African Americans on television. Even though the format of the show does not still exist, and this type of truth is not really on display because of the constraints of commercialism.
ATM: Tell us what about Blair Underwood’s voice that made it comfortable and valuable to use for the narration of your uncle’s bio film?
MH: Blair Underwood is a chameleon. I fell in love with his voice back when he played the role of attorney Jonathan Rollins on LA Law. I knew Mr. Underwood was an accomplished voice-over actor, and I was familiar with his work on other documentaries. I knew we’d come full circle when I learned he voiced the role of Makuu, the head crocodile in The Lion Guard, the legacy story of Disney’s The Lion King. That sealed the deal for me. We needed a voice actor to embody the inner life and thought the process of Ellis Haizlip to give him agency in his own story, and make him a fully realized, three-dimensional character. Mr. Underwood’s voice was just the right combination of old school black excellence and articulation from another era and a modern-day “VSB” or “Very Smart Brother.” It was also just this side of recognizable, but innocuous enough to not be distracting to the viewers and listeners of the film.
ATM: How come you did not make this film during 40th, 30th, 20th, or 10th anniversary of SOUL!?
MH: Why now for Mr. SOUL!? Our stories matter now more than ever. Due in part to the current administration, it’s time to shine a light on the dark spaces, as we see the kernels of a new age of moral panics seeding and normalizing. As administration choices indicate a disregard for the equal protection of all citizens, we can’t allow them to lend false legitimacy to racist, separatist, xenophobic, and misogynistic views. Free expression is threatened. Our film champions this theme while exploring how far we’ve come vs. how far we have yet to go in the struggle to achieve fairness, representation, and inclusion. Because if our democracy and free expression are threatened, then we are all threatened. The release of this film during the 50th anniversary year of SOUL! lined up beautifully. There needs to be a place where the black excellence of every kind is allowed and welcomed to flourish. It’s for the culture. And we’re really primed for this right now.
ATM: I feel there cannot be another Ellis Haizlip. You stated that you hope there will be another Ellis. There will not because he set standards that cannot be reset. His name should be in history books and journalism majors should be currently learning about him. He is more than just a local hero. Less local talents came on his show. Some of the artists on his show has made it in history books and have awards for people in their profession.
As I sat and watched your film, I was amazed at why I had not known of him. Yes, research, but as I lowered my light to google him there were few articles about him. Why is this? Honestly, do you feel he has received the rightfully recognition he deserves?
MH: Ellis Haizlip was never out front; he led by pushing gently from behind. He’s kind of an unsung hero: the mastermind behind the greatest show you’ve never heard of. We’re hoping that the attention and awareness brought to him from this film will help to rewrite that narrative. He was an Afro-futurists. He could see and spot people’s careers before they had taken flight.
ATM: Was Ellis aware of the impact he made? Did he even consider himself a broadcast journalist or an African American male who asked questions surrounded around black excellence and the black culture?
MH: I believe Ellis Haizlip knew that he was way ahead of his time, and how precisely ahead he was. I believe he also knew that the time would come when his accomplishments would be recognized. I believe he considered himself to be a producer first and a host second, and essentially, a broadcast pioneer.
ATM: Describe how the energy was while you worked with him. Melissa, allow us to vicariously feel his character through your words.
MH: Ellis was very quiet yet firm. He always saw the big picture and the long game, was meticulous and detail oriented, while never wavering from his ideas. When I worked with him on the Great Performances Dance in America series, and later behind the scenes at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the energy was electric and inspiring, yet low-key with epic chill. You never knew when he would pull a rabbit out of his hat, so it kept you alert and on your toes.
ATM: Is America’s visibility and being comfortable with broadcast journalists who admit to being gay another reason what prompted you to now do the film?
MH: Ellis Haizlip was a visionary producer, committed to making history by charting new aesthetic territory. On SOUL! he became the first openly gay African American man to host a nationally broadcast all black variety show on public television. He was a mix of contradictions. He melded the sacred with the profane, celebrated both marginalized emerging artists and famous artists while juxtaposing it all against post-Civil Rights black radical thought. He was an activist and advocate for LGBTQ rights and gender parity before it was even fashionable and is still considered by many to be somewhat of an LGBTQ icon. I felt the timing was right to finally bring his story to light, especially during Pride Month (June), not only as an inspiration but to share his legacy as a queer man of color.
ATM: I understand Ellis’ purpose was broadcast journalism. Explain your purpose in life beyond films.
MH: My purpose in life beyond films is to create fine and expressive, culturally representational and relevant work, imbue art with truth, and spread the love. I want to bring people together and elevate the culture. Life is so precious, and ultimately, it’s all about love, whether it’s our time here on earth or in the spiritual plane.
ATM: In light of things happening in various cultures, especially in the black community, what would Ellis say about the state of America and African Americans now? Would he feel commercialism has slowed down the snippets of his legacy from spreading through generations in broadcast journalism?
MH: Ellis Haizlip would have picked up where SOUL! left off. The Movement is a continuum. He would undoubtedly be on the front lines as an unapologetically black activist, championing courageous artists and their bold work, like Donald Glover’s “This Is America.” And although Ellis would be cognizant that the potential financial incentivizing of the younger demographic – 18-to-34-year-old — is what drives most commercialism and capitalism today, Ellis would still feed the entire culture, harness social media and find a way to create a balance between art and commercialism, to make sure his message came across all platforms.
ATM: As broadcast journalism has evolved since SOUL!, why can I only count a few successfully black broadcast journalists on one hand? Whereas in the white community and others, I can easily list successful ones with both hands plus two more sets of hands.
MH: When Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show was canceled in 2016, I read this insightful article in Salon.com on the price of “keeping it 100.” The piece name-checked Ellis Haizlip, saying “What they got in Wilmore, however, was a modern version of Ellis Haizlip with a bit of Tavis Smiley mixed in — an affable, well-informed figure doing his ablest to find punchlines within a never ending parade of stories about the police shootings of unarmed black men, the erosion of civil rights on a federal level…and Bill Cosby.” I think it’s still hard to be a black face in a white space. Until the melanin quotient is higher among the executive ranks of the decision makers and those who green-light content, we must remain courageous and continue to fight the good fight toward 100% inclusion and representation.
ATM: How do you feel the music encompassed an energy for the audience to watch? / What types of emotions did you want the archival music to allow us to feel about Ellis and also how did it make you feel?
MH: About being in the room directing the score, particularly for the last song:
I had a really clear vision for the last song, which was really important because we wanted to musically embody the theme of upliftment, to ask not only the audience where is your soul, but to speak of soul metaphorically, and make a cultural bridge from the old soul artists to the new soul artists. We composed directly to picture on that song while at Red Bull Studios in Manhattan. At one point I showed the band where the contemporary footage of new artists began in the montage and suggested we put in a modulation there, to represent a cultural upsurge, a new beginning, and hope for the future. That became the “New Day” section. It was a beautiful collaboration. We came up with new ideas on the fly, and Robert Glasper and the dope musicians were incredibly versatile and inspiring. They did everything in one take!
What I envisioned as the theme:
Starting the film with the underscore of Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto” and ending it with the “First Daughter of Soul,” Lalah Hathaway singing “Where Is Your Soul” is intentional. We wanted to show the journey of black struggle evolving into black excellence, and represent the continuum — historically, culturally, and musically — and have the score reflect that through-line. Ellis Haizlip believed that R&B is the floor of black pride. It was important for the score, and the film, to be a sonic feast.
Musically, I shared with Robert Glasper that I wanted the end of the film to feel triumphant, to take us out on a high note. Rather than think of the end of the SOUL! series as a tragedy, we wanted the end of the story to represent the springboard of all the talent and black excellence for which the series, and Ellis Haizlip, paved the way — the legacy of SOUL! if you will.
What I intended to say with the last montage in the film:
Ellis Haizlip was an Afro-futurist. He dreamed of a better world for black people, black culture and black music. He said it best himself — in the words of Patti LaBelle which were sent to him in a telegram before the last episode — “Although it’s over, it’s not the end. Black seeds keep on growing.” Robert Glasper even sampled Ellis’ quote into the ending song. We intended the montage to represent that even though the show was over, all that it accomplished in truthfully presenting Black music, Black love, Black Power, Black excellence would continue to grow and flourish, as the seeds have been planted. Look at all we’ve done so far. Look at our beautiful black family. The future is now!
The score: what kind of mood/tone I wanted to portray:
We wanted a score that would reflect the old school soul music vibe while still being fresh and dope, pushing the narrative forward while connecting with a millennial audience. There were vibes and themes. Ellis Haizlip had several, as did the Civil Rights struggle. I even asked Robert Glasper to come up with one for Nixon. We wanted our nemesis to have his own theme, like in the movie “Jaws,” so I nicknamed it the “Jixon” theme.
The most impactful musical moments from the show that I’ve seen in the footage we have:
There are so many impactful musical moments in the archive — trying to decide which ones to use was like Sophie’s Choice. A few standouts include all of the Al Green footage, which is beyond amazing. It was his first appearance on television, even before Soul Train. Stan Lathan, who directed this and many other dynamic episodes, said they shot it on a Saturday morning and when Al Green showed up at 10 am for the soundcheck, “…This kid comes in there, and it looked like he hadn’t been home. Wouldn’t be surprised if he had just come straight from the club. And in New York you know it’s possible on a Saturday to just be coming from the club at 10:00 in the morning!”
There’s also a rare performance of Donny Hathaway performing a live version of “The Ghetto” that just destroys me every time. Or “Wicked” Wilson Pickett screaming his way through “Dont Knock My Love.”
Stevie Wonder’s live versions of “You and I” and “Superstition” are insanely beautiful. And a rare gem I’m still trying to cut into the film features Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions singing “This Is My Country” while the actor Clifton Davis recites a beautiful poem entitled “Ode to the Impressions” by Askia Muhammad.
I’m hoping to still interview Herbie Hancock to talk about all the jazz legends who appeared on the show, like Herbie Hancock with his Mwandishi lineup, Thelonious Monk and his son T.S. Monk Jr, Max Roach, Horace Silver, Cecil Bridgewater, and even Lee Morgan just one month before he died.
ATM: Did you ever have stopped to say wow this is my blood related uncle?
MH: I’ve been in awe of my Uncle since childhood when he seemed so magical to me. Even now, it’s not lost on me what an opportunity we have to tell his story, especially now, when we need to share the cultural inheritance of our black heroes and “sheroes” — now more than ever.
Haizlip is still promoting her film at festivals around the world. She constantly is sharing the impact and inspiration of her uncle with us all. There has been a change in pop culture, which has led her to release this film. This is also the 50th anniversary for SOUL! Haizlip is still promoting her film at festivals around the world, including this week at the Durban International Film Festival in Durban, South Africa. Upcoming: the Woods Hole Film Festival in Woods Hole, MA on July 31, the opening night film at the Black Star Film Festival in Philadelphia on August 2nd, and the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival on August 9th.