'Mr. SOUL!' Shows How the Struggles of the 1960s Still Persist Today

Directed by Melissa Haizlip

Starring Questlove, Kool & the Gang, the Last Poets

BY Liam McPhersonPublished Aug 31, 2021

"Today, whites have every hour on television. The Blacks have none."

The opening words of Melissa Haizlip's Mr. SOUL! are as apt as they are timeless. In 1968, openly gay and unapologetic producer Ellis Haizlip dreamed of a television program that listened to Black voices. Melissa Haizlip's new documentary chronicles the rise, fall and cultural impact of her uncle's beloved television show, SOUL!, where audiences were invited to "share in the Black experience" for an hour each week.

Launched against a backdrop of race riots, war and assassinations, SOUL! gave overdue voice to perspectives that had been drowned out by anti-Black media bias. The show aired on America's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), featuring musicians like Al Green, Wilson Pickett and Stevie Wonder, and launching the careers of Toni Morrison, Arsenio Hall, Kool & the Gang and Earth, Wind & Fire, among others.

Hoping to present an "undiluted Black show," Haizlip welcomed perspectives that other television shows avoided. Notably, Haizlip confronted the homophobia of religious leader Louis Farrakhan, and provided a platform for Black Panther member Kathleen Cleaver, civil rights advocate Betty Shabazz and poetry collective the Last Poets.

SOUL! was cancelled in 1973 after Nixon-era budget cuts to PBS. On the last episode of the program, Haizlip reminded viewers that "Black seeds keep on growing," and remained an active figure in media and Black advocacy until his death from cancer in 1991.

Near the end of the documentary, Questlove from the Roots ponders how different life would be today had SOUL! been able to continue airing. In 2021, as Black people suffer from many of the same systemic inequalities as in 1968, the question bears repeating.
(HBO Max)

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