By Louis Gray
At a time in history when it was rare to see blacks on network television, a landmark show called SOUL! Premiered on PBS and went on an historic six year run before powerful forces removed it from the air. Produced and hosted by legendary Elis Haizlip showcased the best in poetry, music, politics, and social justice. No subject that was important to the black community was off the table as the courageous Haizlip entered not only the homes of black America but everyone to point a bright light on what it meant to be black in America. It is a story that needs to be shared and a new documentary developed by his niece Melissa Haizlip who is the producer, director and writer of Mr. SOUL! aims to do just that. The award-winning documentary is coming to Tulsa by way of a free virtual screening event through the Circle Cinema on Tuesday February 16th at 6:30 PM. A special link will be provided soon. Stay tuned to The OklahomaEagle and Circle Cinema for details.
Melissa Haizlip talked to The Oklahoma Eagle about her documentary on the subject of her famous and talented uncle Ellis Haizlip. Melissa said she had a front row seat to much of his role as mastermind of the unprecedented variety show. It was much more than a variety show as Ellis let the leading thinkers in black culture like James Baldwin, Jesse Jackson, and others comment on racism and the issues of the day. Haizlip also gave many great artists their start on television. Earth Wind and Fire, Melba Moore and Ashford and Simpson were some of those careers started on SOUL!
Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson were also part of the musical talent that were shown to America where their talents were usually relegated to radio only. When asked when she realized her uncle Ellis was someone special, Haizlip said; “I realized he had an incredible bevy of friends.” Ellis had his own apartment, but he seemed to prefer her parents’ home. “I began to notice all these amazing people in our apartment, I would hide under the table so I could stay close and listen, it was strong memory,” Melissa said. He was also her occasional babysitter and he would be in contact with his friends and she began to realize Ellis’ friends were special.
She said part of her early memories was playing with Malcom X’s children. Melissa said as she grew older, she began to work for her uncle to help with the show. Some of her early duties was transferring new numbers to his new datebook. The black book held the personal phone numbers to some of the most famous people in the world. Direct numbers to Michael Jackson, Camille Cosby, and Mr. T with whom Ellis had personal relationships.
Ellis was also an openly gay man who opened the stage to people like James Baldwin who also advocated for Gay and Lesbian people. Baldwin was anti-war and his words were powerful during the waning days of the Viet Nam War. It also caught the attention of the powerful and intolerant.
There were rumors that then President Richard M. Nixon was not a fan of the show and his racist leanings were to remove the show. However, there was no proof Nixon was involved in the decision to kick SOUL! off the air. Melissa and other researchers gained access to the famous Nixon tapes, but they are still in raw form and not catalogued. That meant going over thousands of hours of tapes. Melissa said finally the found “the smoking gun.” On February 5th, 1973 at 11:09 AM to 12:39 PM in the Oval office a recording was made of the president and some of the cabinet to discuss public broadcasting. At the meeting was Clay T, Whitehead and Charles W, Colson. After admitting to removing PBS board members he thought were in opposition to his administration (especially during the early days of Watergate probes), he is on tape saying, “now the fight is how do we get at this without our saying that we’re trying to kick Bill Moyers and some Black off the damn air.” With the money eliminated from funding SOUL! The show was effectively eliminated. The show started on September 8, 1968 and ended March 7th, 1973. One of the last things Ellis said is that “black seeds keep on growing.”
The show also will be available to view on OETA on February 22, at 9 PM.