New Documentary Highlights the Legacy of a Black Queer TV Pioneer

Ellis Haizlip is the unapologetic Mr. Soul!

Courtesy of Ivan Cury

In 1969, trans, bisexual, lesbian, and gay people of color rioted against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village. But nine months earlier, across town in the Hell's Kitchen studios of PBS affiliate WNET, Ellis Haizlip launched another quiet revolution with the first episode of Soul! The television series became the first nationally broadcast all-black variety show spotlighting radical politics and avant garde art to audiences across America. Ellis' niece Melissa Haizlip said, "He was this visionary producer, he was an activist, he was all about black radical thought, and at the same time he still managed to be himself."

Haizlip has paid tribute to her uncle's legacy with Mr. Soul!, which arrives in Austin in the 50th anniversary week of that first broadcast. The documentary follows the show's genesis, demise, and undeniable impact. As a variety show, its roster was unmatched, and Haizlip includes performances from the show's five seasons by acts including Patti LaBelle, Ashford & Simpson, Arsenio Hall, Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, and Al Green, to name a few. The narrative weaves in Ellis Haizlip's crucial role as producer and eventual host, mixing his stunning ability to organize debuting legends onto one national television platform, with the active political culture of the time.

The documentary traces how his successes equated to the show's successes, starting out with what Melissa saw as Ellis' embodiment of the role of "the reluctant host in the beginning, kind of like a fish out of water." Her film traces his feats in heavy-hitting sequences, like Ellis sitting with hip-hop progenitors the Last Poets and welcoming them to perform their piece "Die N****!" on national live television, organizing a tribute show featuring all black women, and setting up a dialogue between novelist James Baldwin and poet Nikki Giovanni.

A culminating moment in the documentary, and an iconic moment for Ellis, comes in the form of an interview with Louis Farrakhan, during which he pointedly asked the Nation of Islam leader if homosexuals would be accepted into the Nation. For Melissa, this sequence captures the duality her uncle embodied, "being an openly gay black man in a world that was consistently hostile to both blacks and gays." The confrontation came at a pivotal time for the Civil Rights movement, when "black people were trying to rediscover themselves, unite and push back against the dominant culture" and while Ellis gives Minister Farrakhan a platform, the host still took his guest to task. She added, "Ellis Haizlip was comfortable with who he was, and he was very demanding that the culture catch up – that television and the landscape would understand that we need to be seen, and we are seen, and we are already beautiful, and we are already accepted, and we are already beloved."

Mr. Soul!, Saturday, Sept. 8, 3:30pm

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