“Soul!” (Famous!) TV Program with Ellis Haizlip
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0099
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0099
Soul! was a publicly funded cultural affairs television program that aired for five seasons on Public Broadcasting Service affiliates in the United States from 1968 to 1973. Its first season aired on New York public television, and after that it was distributed nationally via the Public Broadcasting Service. A showcase for Black arts, culture, and politics, Soul! was closely associated with the producer and host Ellis Haizlip, a Black gay man, who emphasized a vision of “soul” culture that was eclectic, inclusive, and aligned with the radical political energies of the Black Power movement. Soul! provided a powerful platform for Black musicians and other artists and public figures at a time when their access to national TV was severely constrained. It also employed Black women in significant on- and off-camera roles and helped vault the poet Nikki Giovanni to national prominence. Filmed live in a small New York studio, Soul! included an in-studio audience within its representational frame, giving viewers an opportunity to see audiences reacting to guests. These guests ranged from the gospel singer Marion Williams to the soul singer Al Green; from the dancer George Faison to the spoken-word group The Last Poets; and from the activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte to Black Panthers leader Kathleen Cleaver. Other notable Soul! guests included Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, writer and activist James Baldwin, singer-actor Novella Nelson, and musicians including Labelle, Earth, Wind and Fire, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Horace Silver, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Valerie Ashford and Nick Simpson. As a Black-produced TV show aimed explicitly at Black audiences, Soul!’s trajectory was always precarious. Early funding for the show came from New York public broadcasting and the Ford Foundation, liberal institutions eager to support Black media in the wake of uprisings following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. However, backlash to the Black Power movement—as represented by the election of “law and order” candidate Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election—translated into attempts to silence Black public media. Despite evidence that it resonated powerfully with Black viewers, the show was cancelled in 1973. Soul! inspired innumerable writers, performers, and technicians to seek opportunities in television. It set a mark for television that sought to entertain and educate, keeping an eye on diversity within the Black collective.
Despite Soul!’s aesthetic and political significance and its documented popularity with Black viewers, there has been relatively little scholarship on the show. This is partly because scholars of US television historically have paid greater attention to network TV and to its defining genres, especially the family sitcom. As a show that featured live performance, Soul! demands scholarly frames that move beyond concerns with narrative and “positive images.” Moreover, because a majority of the show’s episodes are lost—presumably because the original two-inch tapes were either reused or thrown out—scholarship on Soul! requires a reckoning with an incomplete archive that does not circulate commercially, although select episodes are periodically available through YouTube and other websites. The best source on Soul! is Gayle Wald’s It’s Been Beautiful!: Soul! and Black Power Television, a comprehensive overview which examines the show’s history, aesthetic practices, key figures, and struggles to stay on air (Wald 2015). Heitner 2013 discusses Soul! in the context of the other public television shows that emerged in the era of Black Power, and thus provides important contextualization. The documentary Mr. Soul features clips that are otherwise difficult to access (Haizlip 2018).
Haizlip, Melissa, dir. Mr. Soul! Shoes in the Bed Productions, 2018.
Haizlip’s vivid documentary tells the story of Soul!, drawing on footage from the show’s archive and contemporary interviews with significant contributors, including initial host Harold Haizlip (a relation of producer Ellis Haizlip), musician Valerie Simpson, host and poet Nikki Giovanni, producer Christopher “Kit” Lucas, and director Stan Lathan.
Heitner, Devorah. Black Power TV. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.
Heitner’s groundbreaking book explores the first generation of Black public affairs television shows, which emerged in 1968, as public television’s traditional white gatekeepers were pressed to open their doors to Black producers. Along with Soul!, her book covers New York’s Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, Boston’s Say Brother and Black Journal.
Wald, Gayle. It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power Television. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.
Wald’s richly researched book offers a comprehensive history of Soul! Wald analyzes Soul!’s relationship with Black audiences and emphasizes the radicalism of its race, gender, and sexual politics, as expressed in its programming choices and aesthetics. The book includes detailed discussions of Soul!’s content, especially musical performances and segments featuring Black political and cultural luminaries. Illustrated with photographs by Chester Higgins.
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