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Filmmaker Q&A

Who Was Mr. SOUL?

February 22, 2021 by Craig Phillips in Beyond the Films

If you’re of a certain generation and familiar at all with the late ’60s and early ’70s groundbreaking public TV show SOUL!, you may recognize the name Ellis Haizlip, but he’s not exactly a household name. The groundbreaking producer and co-host of the show is also filmmaker Melissa Haizlip’s late uncle. While Ellis Haizlip sadly passed away all the way back in 1991 at the age of 61, Mr. SOUL! pays tribute to Melissa’s legacy as the creator of America’s first Black variety show, a series that in five impactful years cemented itself as not only a vehicle to celebrate African American artistry, community, and culture but also was a platform for political expression and a powerful force in the fight for social justice.

Mr. SOUL! at long last brings Ellis’s story and that of SOUL! back into the national consciousness.

Mr. SOUL! is an enthralling testament to a show that was so far ahead of its time it now looks like a bulletin,” wrote Owen Glieberman in Variety. “One that hasn’t aged a day.” Adds Carla Hay of Culture Mix, “Mr. SOUL! is a fitting and well-deserved tribute to Soul! and the visionary Ellis Haizlip, who took bold risks in bringing the show to life.”

Melissa Haizlip checked in with us about the making of this project that came straight from the heart and about Ellis’ legacy.

[Credit: George Newcomb] Melissa Haizlip, Producer, Director, and Writer, Mr. SOUL!
[Credit: George Newcomb] Melissa Haizlip, Producer, Director, and Writer, Mr. SOUL!
Why did you want to make this film when you did? 

To tell the story of SOUL!, and of a remarkable time in our cultural history. To bring awareness to the Black Arts Movement and to Ellis Haizlip, a queer icon, broadcast pioneer and unsung hero whose own personal fight for visibility, equality and social justice is the revolutionary voice we need now more than ever.

What do you feel the legacy of SOUL! the show has been on African American culture? What legacy did it leave on you personally? 

Making the film helped us illuminate the groundbreaking cultural work of Ellis Haizlip, the man behind one of the most successful and socially significant Black-produced television shows in U.S. history. For me personally, I hope the film helps us learn the degree to which SOUL! has contributed to Black consciousness and culture, and why we need a voice like Ellis Haizlip now more than ever, to help restore the soul of a nation.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

For an independent film that started from nothing but an original idea, fundraising was the biggest hurdle. Also, securing and scheduling interviews with some of the iconic artists was challenging. Between all the amazing archival footage, images, and endless premium music, sometimes the biggest challenge was just having to choose! 

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

Luckily as Ellis Haizlip’s niece, I had grown up with most of the subjects in our film, so they knew me as “The Kid.” It only took a few years for them to realize that I was all grown up! That’s when they knew that when it came to amplifying their voices and telling their stories, I had not only their best interests in mind, but also kept their valued friendships and relationships with Ellis at heart.

What was your own relationship to public television growing up, both PBS and public access programming? 

I was a PBS kid. I grew up watching Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Zoom and, later on, Mystery. My uncle Ellis had left by the time my mother, Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, came to work at WNET / Channel THIRTEEN in Manhattan when I was in high school. Her title was Special Assistant to the President—who at the time was Jay Iselin—but hers was more of a Vice President position. I spent countless hours in my mother’s office on West 58th Street, waiting to go home after ballet class. I’ve kept all the epic posters from the great programming from back then—The Africans, Brideshead Revisited, Great Performances: Dance in America—and still have my vintage THIRTEEN logo collection with the vintage logo on it.

There’s so much incredible music in your film that was on SOUL! And I know you couldn’t include it all in—but what do you think were the most impactful, evocative music performances that aired on SOUL?  

There is so much incredible music in our film. Some of the most iconic musical performances on SOUL! have actually been lost—we know they existed but the recordings have been lost to time. I would’ve done anything to have heard the Herbie Hancock performances with his Mwandishi lineup, or that episode when Thelonious Monk made a rare appearance, performing with his son, T.S. Monk, Jr. on drums!  I still hope to find these and other lost episodes; my goal is to one day make the entire series complete!

Ellis Haizlip (left) speaks with stage manager Ernest Baxter (right) before an interview with Kathleen Cleaver (center) of the Black Panther Party, during a taping of the series SOUL!
Ellis Haizlip (left) speaks with stage manager Ernest Baxter (right) before an interview with Kathleen Cleaver (center) of the Black Panther Party, during a taping of SOUL! [Photo credit: Chester Higgins]
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut? And do you have a favorite moment?

I wish we’d had more time to include two of my favorite clips — one featuring Curtis Mayfield performing with the Impressions, and one featuring Ellis Haizlip interviewing Bill Withers! 

“his gentle intellectualism, quiet strength, determination, and activism sneaks up on you.”There are several scenes that still get me every time. My absolute favorite sequence is centered around the James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni interview, which was filmed in London in 1971. It’s so illuminating and provocative, and I consider it to be the high-water mark for the entire series. It went viral in 2019 when @AmandaSeales posted a clip of it on her Instagram. @LenaWaithe and @Essence posted it too and now it’s one of the most iconic clips ever.

Any especially surprising revelations come up for you when doing research for the film?

I learned that when the singer Cissy Houston, who appears in the film, came to rehearse for her appearance on the show, she brought her daughter with her, Whitney Houston!! I have been asking everyone for 10 years if they had seen baby Whitney on the set or if anyone had taken a photo of her. There was one photo of a child who was present, but I sent it around to everyone, and no one could confirm whether or not it was Whitney!! Fascinating…we didn’t get the chance to interview Ms. Cissy Houston in time for the film, but I hope that one day we will!

I imagine many younger people had not heard of SOUL! or Ellis Haizlip, even if they’ve heard of many of the people in it. Have you heard from any younger audiences about what stuck with them the most about Ellis’s story? 

When I speak about the SOUL! series with younger folks, I often describe it as the greatest show you’ve never heard of. That seems to capture their imagination and really resonate They’ve also been really touched by Ellis being a quiet revolutionary—his gentle intellectualism, quiet strength, determination, and activism sneaks up on you; it’s really inspirational and uplifting.

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

Of course, it’s impossible to pick just three favorite documentaries, so here are my top eleven: Twenty Feet From Stardom, I Am Not Your Negro, The 13th, Black Power Mixtape, Amy, Senna, Man on Wire, The Thin Blue Line, My Architect, my oldest favorite the cult classic Koyaanisqatsi, and my newest favorite, Crip Camp.

Do you have anything else coming out related to Mr. SOUL! that people should know about?

The biggest update is about the music of the film, which we consider to be (and treated it like) a real character. We’re excited to share that we’ll be producing a Mr. SOUL! soundtrack with all the great music from the film, and we plan to release it on vinyl for all the serious vinyl fans out there! 

And what film/project(s) are you working on next? 

I’m co-executive producing a docuseries on women in hip-hop for Netflix.

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.