“Mr. SOUL!” Documentary of 1960s Black Gay Trailblazer Ellis Haizlip Premiers with Rave Reviews
During the sixties, late television host and producer Ellis Haizlip introduced the world to the first unapologetically all-black, variety show “Mr. SOUL!” The timeless series ran from 1968 to 1973, with only five seasons under its belt, but quickly drew the attention of viewers. The culturally-woke series at the time defied every negative stigma about Black America and instead, put a huge focus on the Black Arts Movement.
The show’s legacy even continues today. Ellis’s niece Melissa Haizlip, whose an award-film producer, created the “Mr. SOUL!” documentary film to showcase her uncle’s revolutionary work.
All artists become geniuses by studying their craft. Pioneering cultural activist and tv producer Ellis Haizlip grew up learning about the world of arts. More importantly, the Washington D.C native became one of the most important figures in the Black Arts Movement. He produced several production plays that featured great black actors like Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.
During the 1950s, Haizlip traveled to Europe and the Middle East, where he directed concerts like “Black Nativity” by famous black poet Langston Hughes. Additionally, from 1972 to 1973 he hosted a 12-day festival of Black expression called “Soul At The Center.” It’s pretty obvious that Ellis Haizlip was a legend in the making.
By Haizlip having established himself as a prominent black figure in the 60’s, he had tons of influence. The Howard University graduate went from putting on play productions to becoming executive producer behind the first black variety show on tv, “Mr. SOUL!”
In addition to crafting a show meant specifically for black audiences, its film crew was entirely made of African Americans as well. The show echoes the changing times of today, where more Black America has started to buy and work for black businesses.
The variety show’s most important focus was on the progression and representation of black expression in the arts, something not often seen on television at the time. It introduced a slew of amazing black actresses, poets, writers, dancers and singers at the time, such as Gladys Knight, Al Green, Toni Morrison and even Muhammad Ali.
“Mr. SOUL!” didn’t just entertain black audiences though, it also challenged them to think of the future of black culture. At a time when African Americans were driving America’s social transformation, a show such as Haizlip’s “Mr. SOUL!” was just the change in pace the changing times needed.
In addition to challenging the status-quo of the changing social climate of America, Haizlip’s “Mr. SOUL!” also introduced the presence of the black LGBTQ community. By Ellis Haizlip being a prominent gay, black man on television, he created quite the controversy during the 60’s and 70’s. The executives at Channel 13, who ran the PBS station responsible for broadcasting the show, were unsettled by Haizlip. They were concerned that a gay man didn’t fit the ideals of Black masculinity.
According to BeenHere.org, he “wasn’t ‘out’ as people of today would understand it” but he wasn’t afraid to discuss issues pertaining to black queerness and the LGBTQ community, either. In fact, he boldly asked the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan if he welcomed Black gays and lesbians to his country. Haizlip even called out Farrakhan for converting many black people to the Nation whilst being imprisoned.
The trailblazing executive producer didn’t just create a revolutionary variety show. He also produced a show that demanded the answers to political and social problems happening throughout the world.
Despite the show’s uniqueness, notoriety wasn’t enough to keep the series going. Throughout “Mr. SOUL!”’s five seasons, it had remained a huge success. Not to mention, it was television favorite among thousands of black viewers.
With the tolerant 1960’s coming to an end, the 70’s started putting the pressure on Haizlip to tamper down the show’s message of Black Pride. Unfortunately, the show had to fight to stay on air. In the 1970’s, the show received a huge three-year $3.5 million grant from the Ford Foundation to keep the tape rolling. However, by the end of the year 1972, Corporation for Public Broadcasting officials viewed all-black shows like “Mr. SOUL!” as problematic to racial progression.
The officials gave Haizlip two choices; either he included more white people on his show or cancel it. In the end, Haizlip walked away from the project. “Mr.SOUL!”’s last episode aired on PBS on March 7 in 1973.
Unfortunately, the end of Haizlip’s show wasn’t the only bad news he endured. In the 1980’s, Ellis Haizlip was diagnosed with lung cancer and suffered from a brain tumor. The television giant lost his battle to Cancer at age 61 and passed away on January 25, 1991.
A year before his death, there was a benefit held to raise money to cover the medical expenses. Many of Haizlip’s closest friends from the entertainment industry attended the benefit, which included Betty Shabazz and Roberta Flack, Ashford and Simpson.
Furthermore, Haizlip’s memorial service was held at Harlem’s Cathedral of St. John the Devine. During his funeral, his close friends Amiri Baraka and New York City Mayor David A. Dinkins performed his eulogy. Additionally, the Alvin Ailey’s dancers gave a dance performance in his honor. The death of the legend came too soon.
Fortunately, his niece, Melissa Haizlip has decided to carry on her uncle’s memory. The award-winning film producer has followed in Ellis’s footsteps in film work by producing a documentary about his trailblazing show “Mr. SOUL!”
So far, Haizlip has already won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Writing in a Documentary for the film. Other notable accolodes include the five nominations it received for the Critics Choice Documentary Awards including Best Documentary Feature, and the Best First Documentary Feature awards, as well as others. Additionally, the documentary was well received by critics during its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. It also premiered on PBS through Independent Lens during Black History Month of this year.
The “Mr.SOUL!” documentary will feature interviews from entertainers today and the past, speaking on Ellis Haizlip’s prominence in the black community. Moreover, the documentary will show how the series changed black culture forever. Melissa’s documentary will include footage of rare live appearances performed by huge icons like Maya Angelou, The Last Poets and Max Roach. Melissa’s film has a lot in store for audiences who have yet to witness the genius behind Ellis Haizlip’s “Mr. SOUL!”
Queen & Slim’s Lena Waithe had plenty of good things to say about the documentary. She loved and respected Melissa’s film so much that she’s helping produce the soundtrack for it. Details about the upcoming album reveal that it’ll be available on Waithe’s record label junction Hillman Grad Records / Def Jam Recordings, a division of UMG Recordings, Inc.
The first single off the soundtrack will be “Show Me Your Soul,” performed by Lalah Hathaway. There’s no word yet on when the soundtrack will drop but the award-winning documentary will premiere on HBO Max August 1, 2021. Melissa Haizlip’s “Mr.SOUL!” documentary will capture so much rich black history, and even gives representation to the Black LGBTQ community.
Watch the Trailer Below: