Decades before Oprah Winfrey and Arsenio Hall established African Americans as popular talk show hosts, Ellis Haizlip paved the way with his PBS show SOUL!
In 1968, against the backdrop of the radical changes wrought by the Civil Rights movement, Haizlip conceived of and launched SOUL!, which has been referred to as “the Black TONIGHT SHOW,” on a local New York station. By 1969, the hour-long weekly series began being broadcast nationwide on PBS – the only show of its kind, produced by and geared toward African Americans. Lasting five seasons, SOUL! exposed the country to the diversity of African American arts, music, culture, and politics, often presenting the first TV appearances of entertainers who became household names. Directors Sam Pollard and Melissa Haizlip set out to share the story of SOUL!, and, significantly, that of Haizlip – an openly gay, politically active African American man – with a new generation.
There are just five days left in the filmmakers’ Kickstarter campaign for $75,000 in additional production funding. At the time of this writing, they’ve reached nearly 42% of their goal, so they need support if they’re going to bring the story of SOUL! back to the screen. Those interested in finding out more about the project can check out their website.
SOUL! left the airwaves in 1973 at the height of the Black Arts Movement and, strangely, at the height of the show’s popularity. It’s no doubt safe to say that most people probably have never heard of the show, or of Ellis Haizlip, making this project a pivotal way to access the treasure trove of rarely-seen interviews and performances in the program’s five seasons. Beyond that, Sam Pollard and Melissa Haizlip aim to give SOUL! and Melissa’s uncle Ellis their due as pioneers in bringing cultural diversity to broadcast television, not only helping to launch the careers of many of the performers featured on the show, but, perhaps more importantly, offering inspiration to the countless African Americans watching each week who had never seen themselves reflected on the small screen in such a way. This is an incredibly worthwhile project to reclaim a part of not only African American history, but of innovative broadcast history that should be more widely available and known, and I hope the filmmakers’ crowdfunding campaign manages to find enough backers to reach their goal in the next few days.