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'Mr. Soul!' review: Entertaining portrait of forgotten TV pioneer Ellis Haizlip

Ellis Haizlip with the J.C. White Singers

 Ellis Haizlip with the J.C. White Singers on the set of "Soul!" Credit: Alex Harsley

DOCUMENTARY "Mr. Soul!"

WHEN|WHERE Monday at 10 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Produced at 304 West 58th Street at WNET/13 from 1968 to 1973, "Soul!" was a groundbreaking national showcase for African American art, music, literature and politics, while its creator (and shortly after launch, host) Ellis Haizlip was to become one of the most important supporters of Black arts in history. Tragically, perhaps inevitably, both are now largely forgotten, and that's where "Mr. Soul!" comes in: Produced by his niece, Melissa Haizlip, she said of her film before it launched at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, "I want [viewers] to … to know that Black has always been beautiful." Clearly, so did her uncle. "Mr. Soul!" is filled with interviews and — best of all — clips.

MY SAY "Soul!" arrived on national TV a few years before "Soul Train," but names aside, further comparisons are apples to oranges. Don Cornelius wanted (and got) "crossover appeal" but of that, Haizlip could have cared less. What he wanted was simple justice and a rebuke to TV's vast wasteland. Over five years, he got that, and how.

In 1968, that vast wasteland (FCC Chairman Newton Minow's famed slight about TV) had nothing that reflected Black life, culture or the arts. Haizlip set out to fill the void, and like someone who suddenly had the whole candy store to himself, filled it with everything he could — dance, poetry, music and, fatefully, politics. The only mandate was that its Blackness remain "undiluted."

There was much to choose from by then. Amiri Baraka (interviewed here) had founded the Black Arts Movement in 1965, while Nikki Giovanni, Gil Scott-Heron, Maya Angelou, and especially James Baldwin had become cultural forces. In Harlem, a spoken-word group called The Last Poets emerged (New York newscaster Felipe Luciano was a later member) who were raucous, loud and explicit; turning to actress Loretta Long (soon to be Susan Robinson on "Sesame Street"), Haizlip asked her what she thought of one particularly vivid performance: "I thought," she said, "that it's about time I heard something other than 'blondes have more fun.'"

The Who's Who list of music performers on "Soul!" was endless yet the more distinctive list is the one of first-timers — those who'd never been in front of a TV camera until they got to the set on West 58th Street. Earth, Wind and Fire, Al Green, Ashford and Simpson, Patti LaBelle (who opened the first edition) were just a few of them. Nick Ashford says "I don't know where we'd be without" Haizlip.

In person as on camera, Haizlip appeared unassuming and self-effacing — the alt-universe version of a Johnny Carson — but that was deceptive, per friends and admirers. "The most effective, insidious revolutionary I've ever met," says Luciano, while fellow poet Sonia Sanchez calls him "seditious." Among others, "Soul!" welcomed Kathleen Cleaver, Betty Shabazz and Georgia Jackson, mother of George Jackson, the activist and author ("Soul Brother'') who was shot dead in the midst of a breakout at San Quentin. "Black Journal'' was launched at Ch. 13 around the same time as "Soul!" and had also covered Black Nationalism, but Haizlip had poked the bear. The Nixon administration pulled funding, and "Soul!" was done by 1973.

As impresario, Haizlip would go on to support and build other careers before his death in 1991 at the age of 61 (lung cancer). But "Soul!" would be both legacy and his own personal mission to make "Blacks visible in a society where they have been largely invisible." Thanks to "Mr. Soul!," it's now an indelible legacy too.

BOTTOM LINE Hugely entertaining portrait of a hugely important and — at least until now — overlooked TV impresario.

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