Before Oprah, There Was Mr. Soul

As the lights dimmed and the film began to roll, students’ eyes were glued to a screen that projected the history of what’s considered America’s first black “Tonight Show,” the Emmy Award-winning, PBS series “Soul!”

The screening was one of three free previews in Washington last week of a new documentary, “Mr. Soul: Ellis Haizlip and the Birth of Black Power TV.” The documentary profiles the work of Haizlip, a theater and television producer from Washington who graduated from Howard University in 1954. It also highlights the influence of “Soul!” on broadcasting, literature, music and dance.

“I can’t believe that I never heard of Ellis Haizlip before, or his show,” said Alexandra Payne, who attended the standing-room-only screening on Thursday in the Armour J. Blackburn University Center at Howard.

“After watching the short film, I view him as a successful black pioneer,” said Payne, a junior majoring in business management at Howard. “He was a person who helped pave the way for some of my favorite African-American heroes today, like Muhammad Ali and Oprah Winfrey.”

Since the first production of “Soul!” in September 1968, Haizlip has helped numerous African-American artists gain exposure and advance in their careers. These artists include Stevie Wonder, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, the Last Poets, the Delfonics and Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Haizlip’s relationship with such key players continued to develop until his death in January 1991 of lung cancer. A number of influential people who were all touched by “Soul!” performed at a memorial tribute the next month at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. Those scheduled to participate included Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Roberta Flack, Phoebe Snow, Richie Havens, Max Roach and Amiri Baraka.

Too Black? Too Angry?

The documentary is a film in progress produced and directed by Haizlip’s niece, Melissa Haizlip, and J. Kevin Swain of Shoes in the Bed Productions.

One of the many people interviewed for the documentary was Christopher Lukas, a writer, producer and originator of the series, which was mainly established to focus on the African-American audience.

Although “Soul!” had numerous supporters, Lukas said, many detractors complained that the program was “too black” and unsuitable for broadcasting, because it showed too many “angry” blacks.

“So, how can a show for black people be too black?”

When students heard Lukas’ question during the screening, some laughed unnervingly. It was then that many students understood the mission of the Civil Rights-era show. The intent of “Soul!” was to broadcast the “truth” about people of color and represent them in a positive way to uplift and guide them toward equality.

“The film was very educational,” Payne said, “and I really hope that more people are able to know about ‘Soul!’ as a historical program.”

That’s one of the reasons that Haizlip’s niece traveled from Los Angeles to screen the film at Howard; the Sankofa Video, Books & Café on Georgia Avenue; and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s third annual Independent Film Series during the CBC conference at the Washington Convention Center.

Truth & Troy Davis

Following the Howard screening, Haizlip participated in a panel discussion with Umar Bin Hassan, former member of the Last Poets; Tia C.M. Tyree, Ph.D., assistant professor in Howard’s Department of Journalism; and Amelia Cobb Gray, retired professor of theatre at the University of the District of Columbia. The moderator was Howard alumnus Christopher D. Cathcart, president and founder of One Diaspora Group in Los Angeles, which co-sponsored the event with Ubiquity Inc., a campus social and service organization.

The discussion focused not only on the history of “Soul!” and Haizlip, but also on the latest incident impacting Howard students. This incident was the execution last week of Troy Davis, who drew international support amid doubts surrounding his conviction of murdering a police officer in Savannah, Ga. Cathcart, a former president of the Howard University Student Association, requested a moment of silence from the audience to help some students cope with their disappointment.

Matthew Holbert, a student from Metuchen, N.J., asked the panelists what his next form of “attack” should be in relation to the Troy Davis execution.

“First and foremost, you coming to this event tonight was the first step my brother,” Hassan told the student. Hassan explained that “showing up” is an important step toward fighting for one’s beliefs.

Hassan then correlated his answer to the history of “Soul!” and Haizlip, highlighting the importance of being real and truthful.

“One thing about Haizlip is that he was real,” Hassan said. “He was always willing to open up his heart to the black community and speak the truth.”

Haizlip extended an early invitation to The Last Poets. “We were on the second show, and I admired Haizlip because he always let us do what we wanted to do,” Hassan said.

As the panel discussion continued, students eagerly raised their hands for a chance to have their voices heard. They wrote their questions on a sheet of paper with hopes of receiving the microphone from the moderator.

Thoughts to Take Away

As the discussion came to a close, Cathcart asked the panel, “What, if anything, should these students take away from tonight?”

Each panelist agreed that the students should first be concerned with school and take it seriously. Secondly, students should understand that the greatest good is one that adjoins and unites, which they said is what Ellis Haizlip accomplished with “Soul!”

“We must see how far we have come as a people in order to know how far we have left to go,” Melissa Haizlip said. When it comes to race, she added, “what was controversy then, is still controversy now.”

“We have come so far, but yet we have not gone further enough,” she explained. “So, it is important that we are doing the [story] telling, and young people should know the significance of telling the truth.”

The screening and discussion informed students not only of “Soul!” and the “charismatic” Ellis Haizlip, but the event also served as a reminder of what soul means.

“If you didn’t know before,” Cathcart said in closing, “now you know you got soul!”