NEW YORK — Anyone analyzing the image of African Americans on the narrow range of TV stations available in the United States 50 years ago could expect to see one of only two stark portrayals.
“We were either victims or villains,” said Chester Higgins, a veteran photographer whose portraits of Black America helped widen that perspective. “The media focused on poverty, riots and crime. They chose not to give any presence to the full character of our people.”
That’s the dehumanizing image the show emphatically titled “Soul!” aimed to obliterate. Debuting on New York City Public Television station WNET (then WNDT) on Sept. 12, 1968, with Higgins as its chief photographer, “Soul!” presented “the vitality and creativity of Black America in a way no other program ever had,” said Felipe Luciano, a poet, activist and broadcaster who worked on its production team. “‘Soul!’ gave viewers the first genuine sense of the expansiveness of Black culture.”
Nona Hendryx, who shared an ecstatic performance with Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles on the show’s inaugural episode, said, “For me, ‘Soul!’ was must-see TV.” She added: “Being on the show gave you credibility.”
The show was largely shaped by its co-producer and host, Ellis Haizlip, a Black gay man operating with power and confidence at a homophobic time. Haizlip used his refined taste, eccentric character and outsider’s perspective both to guide the show’s aesthetic and to define its goals. Now, a half-century after its debut, a new documentary named “Mr. Soul!” is arriving, with a focus on the inexorable link between the program and its host.
“It was Ellis’ revolutionary idea to combine politics, poetry, music and fiction into one forum,” said Melissa Haizlip, the host’s cousin, who directed the film, which arrives Friday via movie theaters’ video-on-demand services.
“Soul!” wasn’t the only attempt to more fairly represent the Black experience in 1968. Two other shows debuted that year: “Say Brother” and the local New York program “Like It Is.” But neither so richly showcased the range of Black creativity: Author James Baldwin, poet Sonia Sanchez, dancer Judith Jamison and activist Kwame Ture all appeared.
The show gave particular exposure to musicians: popular stars such as Stevie Wonder; Wilson Pickett; and Earth, Wind & Fire; and underground artists, including McCoy Tyner and saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whose unhinged performance culminated with him smashing a chair to pieces.
When Luciano asked Haizlip why he invited the famously unpredictable Kirk on the show, he recalled his deadpan response: “Because he’s totally crazy.”
Haizlip, who died of cancer in 1991 at age 61, had a long history of involvement in the progressive arts. Growing up in a middle-class household in segregated Washington, D.C., he began producing plays in college at Howard University. Upon graduating in 1954, he headed to New York, where he produced plays with Vinnette Carroll at the Harlem YMCA, including one starring Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones. He also produced concerts in Europe starring Marlene Dietrich and dramas overseas penned by Baldwin and Langston Hughes.
Haizlip’s father didn’t approve of his homosexuality, though some family members accepted him, including his cousin, Harold Haizlip, the father of the film’s director and an empathic speaker in the documentary. Though Haizlip guided the show from the start, he wasn’t its first host. Initially, scholar Alvin Poussaint and actress and educator Loretta Long split that role, but by the fifth episode the role fell to a somewhat reluctant, and awkward, Haizlip.
His first appearance displayed his daring as well as a nonjudgmental nature, a quality that allowed him to make the audience comfortable with even the more controversial guests. One episode featured the political, proto-rap group the Last Poets, who purposely used racial slurs in their lyrics to counter degrading images of Black people and scotch the scourge of internalized racism.
Haizlip, whose tone never wavered from calm, introduced the piece by saying, “I hope you’ll accept it in the spirit with which it is intended.”
As holistic as the show’s approach to Black politics and culture was, it played a particularly historic role in its presentation of music. “Soul!” helped pave the way for the pivotal Black music program “Soul Train,” a far slicker production that made its national debut three years later, in 1971.
It also served as a precursor to the many musical offshoots of the BET network, including BET Jazz, BET Hip-Hop and BET Gospel. “Soul!” still stood out, with its thoughtful camera angles, mindful close-ups and entirely live performances, which, together, banished glitz to hold the focus on the performers’ art.
“Soul!” was canceled in 1973, despite a vigorous letter-writing campaign from its viewers and strong ratings across PBS stations nationally. Still, pressure came from within PBS to “integrate” the show, which would have diluted its purpose.
Haizlip went on to produce arts events, and he remained on the NET staff until his death. In the final episode of “Soul!” its curator offered the ultimate legacy.
“Although it’s over, it’s not the end,” Haizlip said. “Black seeds keep on growing.”
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