Review by Sean Boelman
Everybody knows the story of iconic African-American talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey and Arsenio Hall, but the original pioneer, Ellis Haizlip, is too often forgotten. The documentary Mr. Soul!, directed by Haizlip’s niece Melissa Haizlip, seeks to remedy that absence in the history book by bringing light to her uncle’s legendary contributions.
The film explores the run of the African-American-led variety show Soul! and how it and its host Haizlip were leaders in supporting Black voices in the arts. The history of representation in the media is absolutely fascinating, because it has direct ties to other social issues of the time in which said media is created, and the story of Soul! is no different.
What makes Haizlip such a revolutionary figure is the way in which he supported voices in the industry which may not have otherwise been discovered were it not for his show. While programs like American Bandstand brought new talent to the world, the opportunities for people of color remained scarce until shows like Soul! came along.
By the time the credits roll, viewers will undeniably have a great deal of respect for Haizlip and the influence he had on the television industry. Over the course of the film, we get to hear from people who worked with him, including some of the talent who he helped discover. And every bit of this adulation feels completely earned.
For those who have a deeper interest in media politics, this film offers a surprisingly deep introduction to the role that race relations played in early television, having impacts that can still be felt today. Obviously, there is a lot more to the story than could be contained in a single feature-length documentary, but this is an excellent starting point for the conversation.
This is also a very entertaining documentary. Even though it is a rather straightforward biography, the personal lens which the filmmaker brings to the table is compelling. There’s a lot of history involved, and by placing this story within its greater context, she is able to make the importance of this story evident.
The film makes use of a lot of archive footage, in addition to the aforementioned interviews, and it’s a really satisfying method. It’s obviously a treat to see actual performance footage from throughout the Soul! run because of the distinctive variety of voices which Haizlip curated to be a part of his creation.
Mr. Soul! is an absolutely phenomenal documentary because of its interesting story and some great execution by the filmmakers. This addresses issues of representation in a way that is both palatable and substantial enough to work as an integral piece of the discussion.
Mr. Soul! is now streaming online in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.