Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
We’ve got another revenue-sharing title this week: Mr. Soul!, ticket sales of which will benefit both SIFF and LANGSTON Seattle Black Film Festival. Check it out right here.
This delightful documentary looks at the legacy of Ellis Haizlip, the enterprising producer-host of a public-television series called Soul!—because what else could it have been called?—which aired from 1968 to 1973. Just five years, but what years! The country coming apart, the arts surging, and African-American culture defining and re-defining itself in a series of complex waves. Soul! was designed to capture those definitions, and it put the camera on a dazzling array of musicians, dancers, poets, actors, and other Black leaders of the time.
The performances are invariably splendid, and so is the costuming. Style itself is one of the film’s subjects, not just because of the gloriously out-there early-70s flair (and flare), but because of the defiant Black-is-beautiful aesthetic being championed, fashion as political act. (One interviewee describes certain shots, taken from behind the audience toward the stage, as “a sea of Afros.”) Given the depth of talent, this film could easily be twice as long with lengthier excerpts, but there’s nice attention to the likes of Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, Earth Wind & Fire, and lots of others.
You expect the music, surely. But there was more to the show than that, and at the center of it was Haizlip, a sincere and erudite nerd gifted with the ability to act as a cultural gatekeeper. (We’re supposed to be beyond gatekeepers these days, what with the utopian democratization of online life, but Haizlip reminds you of how valuable such a figure can be.) A theater maven, Haizlip was very keen on poetry and dance. He threw James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni together for what looks like a searching conversation, unleashed Amiri Baraka at full roar, and had The Last Poets tearing through a spoken-word performance that would not be allowed on TV today, both for its racial fury and its liberal use of forbidden words.
Haizlip’s unruffled, utterly chill presence lends the perfect entrée into this scene. It also allows him to calmly present the testimony of George Jackson’s mother (shortly after Jackson’s death) and Katherine Cleaver. The documentary is a little vague on Haizlip’s encounter with Louis Farrakhan; present-day commentators suggest that Haizlip held Farrakhan’s feet to the fire in a way the footage doesn’t quite support.
This exchange is especially pointed because Farrakhan is spouting homophobic rhetoric, and Haizlip was gay. One wants to know more about Haizlip’s life outside the show, because he’s clearly an interesting cat, but the film is probably right to focus on the work. Director Melissa Haizlip is Ellis’s niece (the film is co-directed by Samuel Pollard), and the familial pride is palpable. Speaking of directors, one of the studio directors on Soul! was Stan Lathan, who went on to a very prolific career as a pioneering Black director, mostly in TV (he’s also the father of Sanaa Lathan).
A joyous movie. In his final bow on Soul! (the show fell to budget cuts that were politically motivated), Ellis Haizlip’s wrap-up includes gratitude for “all the vibrations,” a suitable choice of words for the particular groove he cultivated. This movie, too, is alive with them.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.