From 1968 to 1973, the weekly hour-long African American variety show SOUL! was at the forefront of Black culture, presenting well known, cutting edge and trend-setting artists, philosophers and activists to a massive audience who were hungry for representation.
Melissa Haizlip’s documentary, Mr. SOUL! mines the TV show’s treasury of archival material to illustrate SOUL’s scope and range, uses news and other archival footage to capture the era’s historical ambiance and features current interviews with ‘talent’ who appeared on the show and can testify to its importance in their lives and careers.
Ellis Haizlip was Melissa Haizlip’s uncle. In the interview, she reveals her personal recollections of her childhood with Uncle Ellis, and discusses the qualities that made him so special to so many individuals and to the Black community as a whole.
Jennifer Merin: Hi Melissa. It’s lovely to meet you. I think that you know that I knew Ellis. He was a wonderful part of my teen years and it is for me, a very special and wonderful treat that this film is being released now and that Ellis is going to have his day again. So thank you very much for that! Let’s start off – I know that you were in your childhood when SOUL! Was on the air. How did you feel about the program? What did it mean to you? What did Ellis [Haizlip] bring into your life?
Melissa Haizlip: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having us. I feel like I should be interviewing you! Because I want to hear your stories about Ellis, but we will do that another time. I was very young when the SOUL! show was on the air, but one of the best things about that moment in my life was that for some reason Ellis decided to live with us-in our apartment…And it was so exciting because even though he had his own apartment on Fifth Avenue, he liked to come over and hang out with us and stay with us. It was always magical when Uncle Ellis came over. He would come over after the tapings of the show and often bring people with him who just appeared on the show. Of course, I was so young I didn’t recognize who they were – I didn’t know about celebrities or famous people or anything like that. But I knew Ellis was magical – there was something about his energy – and something special about the people who were around him. And so that was very exciting.
I learned years later that I was bouncing on James Earl Jones’s knee or that it was Clifton Davis and Melba Moore who came over because Ellis helped produce their show, as well. Or even Betty Shabazz would come over because she was good friends with Ellis. And, sadly, after her husband, Malcom X, was assassinated, he took good care of her, he invited her over and she’d bring her kids to the apartments. I was running around with Malcom X’s kids under the table, and not even thinking abut that until later, when I’d say, ‘what the heck!’ was I really playing with Malcolm X’s children, and now they’re good friends, of course, as adults. But this type of special moment really imbued in me a sense of pride to be related to Ellis, to be a Haizlip, but also recognizing that he was a very unique individual and what he brought to the arts and how he changed the landscape of television, was really significant, and so, all of that inspired me to make this film. And now that the film is coming out, we get to share that magical moment, but not only that, we get to celebrate that profound moment of change in America right now, at another profound moment of change in America.
JM: I think Ellis would be gratified and elated by the changes that are taking place now. It’s interesting to me that you mention that as a child when you were in his company, you were not aware of the celebrity of it all. I too. I mean, Ellis and my Mom were card — bridge partners at an ongoing weekly all night card game at Novella Nelson’s apartment — which I later took over — on Bank Street. And, people would drop by there as well, and I was never aware of their celebrity. That was not what they were about. And, thinking back, like you, the enormity of those gatherings, the talent that gathered around Ellis and the way in which everyone was just who they were and living up to their potential, and that’s what he wanted, and that’s what he brought to everyone, to all of the people who came in contact with him.
In making the film you dealt with all the archival from SOUL!, and you did a marvelous job of presenting the range of what that show was about, and that it was beyond entertainment. It was about enlightenment rather than entertainment — or, rather, enlightenment through entertainment. Are there any moments that stand out in your mind from all of the archival material that you dealt with that you can share with us?
MH: Yes, the archival material is spectacular – first of all you have to realize that we’re covering a very tumultuous time, a very progressive time, many movements happening at the same time — from the anti-Vietnam war movement, the Women’s movement, the post civil rights push, the Black arts movement all of things were converging together. I believe that SOUL! represents this brief harmonic convergence of all these things, and what you see in the archive is representative of that. So, you have 130 episodes between 1968-1973 – and they’re just so rich, it’s like a time capsule. And, seeing these young artists in their prime and, as you say, without artifice or a notion of celebrity. The culture of celebrity has really emerged during the last couple of decades, especially with the onset of social media and the digital universe we’re living in now.
But there was something really authentic about SOUL! People recognized at that moment that show was a place to be free, to express themselves freely on a platform that up until that point had not really embraced Black culture, and certainly not the Black arts and the Black political body or the African American diaspora as well. So, as i said before, you’re dealing with all these converging ideas, and when you see that reflected in the archive, it actually became very difficult to decide what to put into the film and what to leave out of the film. We think of this as a continuum and really just dropping in for these little moments.
Our decision to make the film just under 100 minutes was made in trying to make sure it could go on broadcast television and also that’s sort of a theatrical length. But if I had my way, I would have made a series, maybe a documentary series! Because there is just so much. It’s really vast. And what I hope is that this film will be something like a gateway drug into SOUL!, just letting you scratch the surface of what is really a very beautiful archive.
And in terms of special moments, one of my favorites and the highlight of our film and what’s really the high water mark of the series — and that is the interview interview between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni which is just breathtaking. I really have no words for it. Every time I see it, I discover something new. And we included a very long piece of that. I had to fight with my editors, we were duking it out because they kept saying it’s too long, we’ve got to cut it, we need to move on, and I kept saying nobody is cutting Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin, not on my watch. But it was a two hour episode and so rich, and I’m so happy that its finally getting a lot of attention. One of my favorite artists, Amanda Seales, she’s on Insecure, she posted a clip of it last year that went viral. And by viral i mean that on Instagram over 435,000 people saw it and were commenting and reposting, and Essence picked it up. And, the comments were completely contemporary, from regular people weighing in and the conversation was happening now. They weren’t treating it as though it was some precious gem from the 1970s, and that’s when I knew this is so relatable, everything in the show and in particular that conversation with Baldwin and Giovanni which really is like a lost gem and should be out there for the public.
JM: Agreed! Do you think there’s a way of making the archives available to the public? Is there a chance of doing that? Do you think it would be valuable? I would love to see that happen, frankly, because SOUL! was a focal point. It really became — I don’t know exactly how to put this — a sort of flag pole for Black culture. And, as you say, it was the entire range. And I think that — well, I’m not sure and I’d love to know your opinion about this: do you think there is such a focal point now? There’s a lot of activity, but is there a focal point like Ellis Haizlip, or a gathering center like Ellis at this time? And would the availability of the archive to the public provide something like that, do you think?
MH: Well, that’s a wonderful question and I’m going to try to answer it in several parts. For one thing, I believe that the best thing about the show and the TV series was that it was made for us by us. It was also made for public television at the moment when public television was actually becoming public, going from local television show to the national network — well, not really a network, but all of the public television stations across the country. So here you have this voice that seemed to represent New York, emanating across the country and connecting with Black communities everywhere, and so that becomes significant in terms of the African diaspora being represented on television.
And so, cut to today, when we do have the actual archival material available, it has taken on a life of its own in a way in places like social media and YouTube, but luckily, there are several places where you can watch as many as 20 episodes that have been digitized. One of them just showed up on Amazon Prime, so of you happen to be a Prime member, you can watch 10 or 15 episodes. Also PBS has it’s own platform for streaming shows called PBS Passport, which if you’re a member of a local PBS station, you can log on and watch it. And, then there’s another site called Shout Factory, and Shout Factory prides itself on a lot of retro programming so you can log on there for free. I’m hoping, knock on wood, that this film will reinvigorate interest in the re-release of the actual archive to the public, because you almost have to be an academic or a scholar — which I became in my ten years of research for the film — in trying to actually access those lost episodes and the episodes that are available to license to use.
But actually, the Library of Congress does have a certain selection and the Smithsonian has a certain collection that’s a research selection because that’s the Ellis P. Haizlip papers, which are a compilation of the few he was able to stash away in his personal collection. Those are now available and what I’m asking — if they’re listening — is for the new Smithsonian The National Museum of African American History and Culture, I would love for them to reinvigorate the collection they already have and to see if I can get them to move some of the papers in Ellis’ collection down to the Mall, and create a tribute to him there.
Or at least have him in the Arts and Cultural Galleries on the fourth floor, which is where he really belongs. There’s a wonderful exhibit of all the television icons from Flip Wilson to Oprah, and I say you just need a picture of Ellis right in there. There is s clip of him downstairs in one of the earlier floors — it’s just a very short clip of him in a montage of Black power television programs to show the different things that were shown on the air at that time. But, I believe he’s something of an unsung hero and it’s time to bring his story to the forefront.
JM: Agreed! What do you think Ellis — were he able to speak now — what would say about the current situation, about the here and now, about these times? I mean it’s been a long time and in so many ways it seems as though time has passed without there being any progress whatsoever. And in other ways it seems like we’re having a great explosion of possibilities and opportunities and it’s difficult to kind of sort it out and figure out really where we are and where we need to go. Because Ellis was a force that brought — he was like a magnet, like a force that, like a centrifugal force that brought everything together. And I think we need that right now. So, what do you think he would do or say to comment on that, or to make that happen or facilitate that?
MH: I think one of the most profound elements of Ellis Haizlip is that he was an Afro futurist before anyone had even thought of or coined the term. He was always looking to the future for the betterment of our people, for the upliftment of our people, for the next opportunity. In that way, he was part of this idea of institution building. Ellis was there to help lay the groundwork for things like the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as part of the New York Public library. He had always envisioned for that to be so much more than just the Harlem library – it needed to be a mecca, a cultural mecca. When they hired him to be the head of cultural programming, and he was there in the early, mid-80s — ’86,’87 I think — when it first started, he brought this concept of SOUL! from downtown to uptown. He brought in people who would expand the footprint and made them understand it was important to have a gathering space to find ways to build community. A space to build community to move things forward. Because in the early days of the Schomburg, they didn’t even have a theater, a performance space, any type of rotunda – it was really just a library. And we would have to go to Aaron Davis Hall to have performances and gatherings. So, he really instilled in them this greater purpose and that created the Schomburg that we have today. Same thing with different institutions and boards. He explained and created a need to build the arts, and built the institutions around the arts – validation on Black arts. He was one of the first board members of Alvin Ailey and the first to produce Alvin Ailey and made the company perform overseas. Same thing with the Bill T Jones company, he was first on the Board. He was always about finding ways of helping Black people find their ways of expressing their excellence and move forward.
And I think if we look at what’s happening now we’re at this inflection point, and it’s really the moment — with all due respect and bowed heads to those we’ve lost in the struggle and in the pandemic, and is very difficult time, I want to acknowledge that and the medical workers leading us through this – at the same time it feels like it’s the birth of a beginning. It feels like there’s room to grow and there’s room to recognize all of the racial and social injustices that we have shied away from. I think Ellis would be very vocal and very visible with that and he would use art as a platform to push the culture forward. Which is what he always did. And that’s what was so pioneering as his spirit and so trailblazing about his spirit. When you look back and you think, ‘Wow he was really bold,’ doing things that had not happened, presenting people that had never been seen, and demanding that we be treated equally. And that the perception of African American culture needs to expand.
I think he would do the same for this moment – he would seize the moment. We wear our politics, our gender representation-everything on our sleeves now. Not as demure as it used to be. And I think he would take advantage of that to seize the moment.
JM: Yes, this is an important moment. I think what you’ve done is important. I live right around the corner from Zabar’s, and so, as soon as this is over, please come and join me here. I’d really love to meet up with you and kind of revel in the past with memories of Ellis.
MH: I would adore that!
JM: And, again, I think that this film is going to bring an awareness to a lot of people. I’m so happy to see that you made it and made it so beautifully. I know that he would be pleased with the film.
MH: Well, thank you!
JM: You’ve done a great job – and he would be the first person to thank you for it- and I thank you for it. I hope that a lot of people will see the film and understand what this legacy is and, bringing it up to date, carry it forth in the name of Ellis and everyone affiliated with SOUL! Thank you very very much Melissa. It’s wonderful to meet you this way – I hope that we do get to meet each other in person in the future.
MH: I’m certain we will, thank you so much and for reminding all of us about that moment in time as well. There’s so few people who know about those card parties – they were so significant that he wrote them down in his journal. Of when he was going to play cards. Those journals are all in the Smithsonian now – probably your name might be in them. All of it has been documented, and I think that that was the most important thing – it was the beginning of something. As he says in the film, “Although it’s over it’s not the end. Black seeds keep on growing.” And I think that that is really our mantra for the day.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Watch Melissa Haizlip on MR SOUL! and Ellis Haizlip’s Mega Legacy – Jennifer Merin interivews on YouTube And, read Marilyn Ferdinand’s review of MR. SOUL!.