HBO announced recently that Mr. SOUL!, an award-winning documentary that captures the historic moment of Ellis Haizlip’s SOUL! variety show, will premiere on HBO Max on Sunday, August 1st.
If the name Ellis Haizlip is unfamiliar, let’s just say that there might not have been The Oprah Winfrey Show nor The Arsenio Hall Show if it hadn’t been for him. From 1968 to 1973, Haizlip presented a multidimensional view of Black Americans through the public television variety show SOUL! And “variety” is the perfect description of the series because Haizlip, the producer and host, shifted the focus on Black America away from inner-city poverty and violence to the Black Arts Movement. He featured and celebrated Black musicians and entertainers, politicians, poets, dancers, writers, and other luminaries without requiring them to compromise or filter their beliefs or expression.
Mr. SOUL!, which was produced and directed by Ellis Haizlip’s niece Melissa Haizlip, uses archival footage and the recollections of those who witnessed SOUL! to demonstrate the impact it and Ellis Haizlip had at a critical moment in Black America’s — and America’s, in general — cultural rise then and its lasting effect. The film features interviews and rare live performances from iconic artists and thinkers such as: 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; Black Ivory; Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes; Maya Angelou; Billy Preston; Toni Morrison; Bill Withers; Sonia Sanchez; Wilson Pickett; Kool & The Gang; Roberta Flack; Kathleen Cleaver; Amiri Baraka; Carmen de Lavallade; George Faison; Melba Moore; and Max Roach. There’s even a 16-year-old Arsenio Hall performing magic tricks on SOUL!, which was his TV debut. Like the TV show that inspired it, Mr. SOUL! basically has something or someone for everyone.
"Making the film helped us illuminate the groundbreaking cultural work of Ellis Haizlip, the man behind one of the most successful and socially significant, Black-produced television shows in U.S. history," said Melissa Haizlip in a release. "We're truly grateful for the opportunity to both introduce and reintroduce the SOUL! series, the music, and Ellis Haizlip to the world. SOUL! is the greatest show you've never heard of. And up until now, my uncle Ellis Haizlip has been a bit of an unsung hero.”
She added: “We hope our film and the music, artists, and creators it celebrates will help to center Black excellence and Black joy. It’s so exciting to see audiences discovering Ellis Haizlip as this hidden figure and unsung hero. Creating this love letter to Black culture helps to elevate all of the significant contributions African Americans and people of color have made to the culture and to the nation.”
Mr. SOUL! won Best First Documentary Feature at the 2020 Critics Choice Documentary Awards and Outstanding Writing in a Documentary (Television or Motion Picture) at the 52nd Annual NAACP Image Awards. In addition, Grammy Award-winners Robert Glasper and Lalah Hathaway’s “Show Me Your Soul,” which was also co-written by Muhammad Ayers and Melissa Haizlip, was shortlisted for Best Original Song at the 93rd Academy Award. The Mr. SOUL! soundtrack will be available from Hillman Grad Records/Def Jam Recordings.
Mr. SOUL! was executive produced by Chaz Ebert; record executive and film producer Ron Gillyard; producer and director Stan Lathan; Hillman Grad Productions producing partner Rishi Rajani; Run&Shoot Filmworks CEO Stephanie T. Rance; actor and producer Blair Underwood; and Emmy award-winning writer, producer, and Hillman Grad Productions CEO Lena Waithe
"After seeing Melissa's doc, I knew I wanted everyone to see it,” said Waithe in a release. “This documentary showcases one of our Queer icons who never received his just due. He put Black people center stage and didn't care if it was a huge success. He just wanted to leave an impact, and that he did.”