Ellis Haizlip was a trailblazer in the world of TV, pioneering the way with “Soul!,” a TV show that devoted itself to the African American experience, showcasing music, poetry and highlighting Black talent from 1968-1973 against the backdrop of a changing America and white establishment that was TV.
Toni Morrison, Cicely Tyson and Sidney Poitier all appeared on late-night TV, as Haizlip provided a platform for these voices and exposing TV audiences to Black culture.
The new documentary, “Mr. SOUL!” (streaming on virtual cinema) showcases his story and offers highlights from the show, reminding the world of his legacy. Director and Haizlip’s niece, Melissa Haizlip celebrates what would have been his 90th birthday, speaking with Variety about how she and DP Hans Charles collaborated to bring this story to a new generation.
“Soul!” was a unique moment for television when it aired, when you’re doing a documentary like this, how easy was it to get access to the footage and how well preserved was it?
Melissa Haizlip: The archive was really important. There were 130 episodes from 1968 to 1973 and we didn’t have access to all of them because the show was taped live and the notion of archiving was different back then. Live television wasn’t archived because there was this idea that once you saw it, you wouldn’t want to see it again.
But there was also this archiving of what was happening in America. It was a tumultuous time – the post Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. There was also the Black Power movement, and the landscape was shifting politically. It was important to capture all of that in the same place to show what was happening that would create a unique opportunity for a show like “Soul!”
The aesthetic of the documentary is this seamless transition from archive footage of the show to photos to newsreel and the interviews, how did you find that in the editing?
Haizlip: That was challenging, I will say, we had shot for several years, because it took us a long time to raise money for the film. When you have so many different types of footage, whether it’s you know, the black and white footage from the ‘60s, or the new burgeoning color television aesthetic which happened on the show and you’re dealing with different frame sizes, it was a juggle.
We were very conscientious of that of what we would have to do to change the footage but still to keep that telegenic feel from the ‘60s because we didn’t want to lose it.
But we had amazing editors who saw that and were able to help create a language that would help. The vignettes of Ellis were important and helped establish that cinematic throughline.
Hans Charles: The thing that is so interesting about the way the film is constructed is that maybe because Melissa knew him, you fall in love with him watching the film. You wish desperately that you knew him or that you went to one of his house parties, or had this artistic conversation. That’s what struck me, was that feeling of how much I wanted to meet Ellis, and in a certain way, “Mr. SOUL!” was an opportunity to meet him intimately and understand what he did professionally, and how he may have ushered an entire genre of television that really wasn’t there.
Hans, what was the inspiration behind your framing when you were capturing the interviews?
Charles: Melissa and I talked about getting inspiration from the show itself, like how was Ellis framing people and how was it presented? I was doing a panel for RED digital, and saying that Ellis was putting people on stage and placing a mise en scene. It was so riveting and interesting.
We talked about capturing that. I said to Melissa that we needed to be bold in the locations that we shoot. We had to use them and not be efficient. We used two locations because we wanted two distinct looks.
Melissa understands that the camera can be unholy as well, and you have to use it judiciously. I’m very shy about the camera. I don’t like pointing the camera at people who don’t want the camera pointed at them. For me, part of what I was wanting to do was to make the environment as comfortable and as welcoming as possible because I want people to relax.
Haizlip: I love the way he captures the interiority of the characters and that was something I wanted to match and pick up on. Ellis had a relationship with these artists, some he knew intimately and some he knew as colleagues.
If you look at some of the footage from the James Baldwin/Nikki Giovanni interview, you can see the machinations of Nikki Giovanni coming up with the ideas to counter James Baldwin – who is at the same time her mentor and idol. That type of inflection that you can see was something I wanted to capture for our interviews. Hans was always very generous about how are we going to position the cameras? We had a Dana Dolly, which is something I wanted so that we could roll the camera and get very intimate. We had the locked A cam, but the B camera really went into the interiority of the character. Some of the most beautiful shots are extremely intimate. It was functional and telling the story, and it was also cinematic at the same time, and you don’t always have that type of feeling or aesthetic in documentaries.