Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, Nikki Giovanni, James Baldwin, Cicely Tyson, Harry Belafonte, Muhammad Ali, The Last Poets, Earth, Wind & Fire, Sidney Poitier, Mavis Staples and even a teenaged Arsenio Hall were just a few of the artists who appeared on the seminal 1968-73 Black variety show SOUL! The show was groundbreaking not only for its focus on Black features but also for its host: Ellis Haizlip, who was political, outspokenand openly gay.
His niece, Melissa Haizlip, is the force (producer/director/writer) behind the documentary Mr. SOUL!, which debuted on HBO Max on Aug. 22. She talked with Windy City Times about the show and her uncle.
Windy City Times: I was stunned, in a good way, on several levels by this documentary about a show that I didn't know existed. Is Mr. SOUL! a tribute to your uncle, an educational tool or something else?
Melissa Haizlip: It's all of the above.
There are so many hidden figures in our history, in our culturenot necessarily hidden to us, but by the sands of time or other agendas. But the most important thing is to find those hidden figures and illuminate their lives and importance; otherwise, you're dealing with this whole concept of erasure. We're actually celebrating and illuminating the contributions of African Americans to the culture, to the history of this nation.
And you're talking about Ellis Haizlipwho was a very proud, out gay man who's somewhat of a queer icon in modern-day parlance. That wasn't even a possibility, pre-Stonewall. I thought it was really important to illuminate his storythe triumphs and tribulations. He had to have a double consciousness in order to survive and be welcomed into the world of media. This story illustrates the nuances of this culture; it's not a monolith, and we've always had queer icons, whether they were known or unknown.
We've always had Black excellence. The movie is a cultural corrective, if you willa resetting of the narrative. We should recognize that we're standing on the shoulders of giants.
It's also an educational tool. We did have an educational distributor, and we wanted to bridge the gap for our young African-American youth, and to be inclusive of all those who really don't know about this era. We also wanted to be incredibly uplifting and entertaining in curating Black joy.
It's a huge conversation right now, as we're experiencing a cultural PTSD regarding the events of last year. I think of [the film] as a Balm of Gilead, and as a wonderful educational tool, as you say. I think SOUL! is a tide that lifts all boats.
WCT: How true do you think the following statement is? "SOUL! was revolutionary, in part, because it featured revolutionaries."
MH: Yes. I do agree with that. The statement is very accurate because that was only part of the reason it was revolutionary.
There are many different kinds of revolutionaries, as we know. There are outspoken revolutionaries and activists who become [them], but there are also quiet revolutionaries and people who change thought. I think Ellis was in the business of changing minds. He didn't have a tremendous amount of power, but he did decide that by illuminating the multifaceted corners of the Black experience, that would be a subtle way of changing the perception of African-American culture.
With all the civil-rights struggles that were happening at that time, people weren't experiencing Black folksthey weren't checking for us, as we say. So this idea that you could experience Black culture for yourselvesalong with women and queer folks behind the sceneswas revolutionary.
Ellis Haizlip didn't really take sides about what was good or bad, or the sacred or profane. I think he knew there was room for all of that; that, in itself, was revolutionary. He had the Black Panthers on there, and I'm sure they were on the [FBI] watchlist. And there was also art as activism. Giving visibility to the invisible is revolutionary. And there was a limited platform to change minds with; at that time, you had ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS.
WCT: And there was a limited platform. Did SOUL! air on public access in New York City?
MH: Well, it started on a public television stationnot really public access.
Remember: Before the Public Broadcasting Act [of 1967], there were independent, educational stations around the nationbut they hadn't been joined together in a system. That system became PBS. And that's what was really unique about the timing of SOUL! It happened just when a national audience was forming. The show went to being on the flagship PBS station in New York City, WNET.
For the first season, the show was local, in the New York/New Jersey area. However, after, it was broadcast to major cities where PBS was available.
With SOUL!, Ellis decided to take things one step further and make it "Black power television." But he included artists, activists, poets and musicians, and made it a cultural space. But the Nixon administration didn't like it because it wasn't conservative. You had this unapologetically Black agenda being funded by the governmentand they weren't having it.
It's hard to imagine in this day and age, with all the streaming and [technological] options, so we had to set this up in the film so people could understand and appreciate SOUL!
WCT: This documentary has so many factual nuggets that I'm sure I'll have to watch it five more times to absorb it. [Haizlip laughs.] And it was interesting to see singer Billy Prestonsomeone who struggled with his own sexuality.
MH: Many people have said to me, "Melissa, I had to stop the film because I couldn't believe what I was seeing."
With Billy, it was a struggle because he was so spiritual; the gospel was his foundation, as it was for Ellis. He said, "Gospel music is the floor for Black pride." But there is this duality that queer Black men have to straddle between loving their community and not being accepted by their community/family. And we tried to show this struggle.
The beauty of the creativity of someone like Billy Preston or the furtherance by Ellis Haizlipwhile still being constrictedis some of the melancholy you might feel while watching the film. Those might be the underpinnings of our culture, in general, but we still carry on, create and love. We have to be honest about those incongruencies. This is a universal story.
I think the key is showing things that are intimate with love and not with judgment. That's a very delicate hand we had to play. There's obviously no tragedy in being queer; Ellis was a strong Black man, but he had his struggles.
WCT: What was the most surprising thing you uncovered?
MH: There were a lot of surprising things, as this documentary took 10 years to make. I went down a lot of rabbit holes. [Laughs]
But for me, the most surprising things were the profundity of people's memories of SOUL! and the transformative nature of those experiencesthey were immediate. I was worried about how to make these 50-year-old stories dynamic and present instead of just a trip down memory lane; I knew there was more depth than that. What impressed me was hearing these people in their 70s, 80s and even 90sand that their experiences were right at the surface. It was as if these experiences had just happened; you don't see that every day. One person we interviewedFelipe Lucianojust went all IN, cursing and swearing; we were just blown away, and the whole crew had tears streaming down their faces. I just wasn't prepared for that.
WCT: I figured this took some time, as I saw an interview with Ashford & Simpson. [Singer Nick Ashford died in 2011.]
MH: Yeahwe didn't know he was ill. He was coughing and sweating profusely during our 10-minute interview with him. We thought he had a cold, but he passed away a few months later of cancer. But they wanted to do the interview because they loved Ellis and they feel he made them who they were.
WCT: If SOUL! ran today, what guests do you think would be on it?
MH: Oh, my gosh. I've thought about that as well as reboot of SOUL! I'm actually working on a concept with the wonderful Stan Lathan, who was part of the original crew and who is in the film. [Note: Lathan is also the father of actress Sanaa Lathan, among others.]
I think Ellis would have outspoken artists and activists. Colin Kaepernick would be sitting up there as well as 1619 Project's Nikole Hannah-Jones. Black Lives Matter would absolutely be up there. We're seeing the same types of ideologies that people saw during the Black Power movement.
WCT: Your uncle certainly didn't shy from controversial people and subjects. What do you think he would have made of Rachel Dolezal [the former college instructor and activist known for claiming to be a Black woman]?
MH: Whoo! [Laughs] I can't use the words he would've used. He had a sharp tongue, but he was also kind. He had love for all the inconsistencies of this culture.
WCT: This year marks the 30th anniversary of Ellis Haizlip's passing. If he were alive, what's one question you definitely would have to ask him?
MH: Oh, my goodness. I would ask him the most important question: Do you feel you did enough?
I always sensed a certain melancholy around himthat he hadn't done enough. He wanted more for our people. I think he'd be so excited by the cultural strides we've made, but he'd still be so critical of not being where we need to be. That's why we ended the film we way we did; it's just a beginning. There has always been Black excellence, and there always will be.