‘Soul!’ Brought Black Culture to TV in 1968. A New Doc Tells Its Story.Breaking News
tags: African American history, music, popular culture, documentary, Arts, television
Anyone analyzing the image of African-Americans on the narrow range of TV stations available in the United States 50 years ago could expect to see one of just two stark portrayals. “We were either victims or villains,” said Chester Higgins, a veteran photographer whose portraits of Black America helped widen that perspective. “The media focused on poverty, riots and crime. They chose not to give any presence to the full character of our people.”
That’s the dehumanizing image the show emphatically titled “Soul!” aimed to obliterate. Debuting on New York City’s Public Television station WNET (then WNDT) on Sept. 12, 1968, with Higgins as its chief photographer, “Soul!” presented “the vitality and creativity of Black America in a way no other program ever had,” said Felipe Luciano, the poet, activist and broadcaster who worked on its production team. “‘Soul!’ gave viewers the first genuine sense of the expansiveness of Black culture.”
Nona Hendryx, who shared an ecstatic performance with Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles on the show’s inaugural episode, said, “For me, ‘Soul!’ was must-see TV.” She added: “Being on the show gave you credibility.”
The show was largely shaped by its co-producer and host, Ellis Haizlip, a Black gay man operating with power and confidence at a homophobic time. Haizlip used his refined taste, eccentric character and outsider’s perspective both to guide the show’s aesthetic and to define its goals. Now, half a century after its debut, a new documentary named “Mr. Soul!” is arriving, with a focus on the inexorable link between the program and its host.
“It was Ellis’s revolutionary idea to combine politics, poetry, music and fiction into one forum,” said Melissa Haizlip, the host’s cousin, who directed the film, which arrives on Friday via movie theaters’ video-on-demand services.
“Soul!” wasn’t the only attempt to more fairly represent the Black experience in 1968. Two other shows debuted that year, “Say Brother” and the local New York program “Like It Is.” But neither so richly showcased the range of Black creativity: the author James Baldwin, the poet Sonia Sanchez, the dancer Judith Jamison, the activist Kwame Ture all appeared. The show gave particular exposure to musicians — popular stars like Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett and Earth, Wind & Fire and underground artists, including McCoy Tyner and the saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whose unhinged performance culminated with him smashing a chair to pieces.