In 1968, at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, the only black faces people saw on television were criminals on the nightly news. All of this changed with the premiere of SOUL!, the groundbreaking PBS series that was the first all-black variety show on national television. The product of a visionary producer and eventual host Ellis Haizlip, an openly gay man, SOUL! was an unflinching celebration of black excellences in the arts.

It was home to poets, musicians and authors who had the talent to be huge stars, but also those who openly challenged white mainstream views on race. SOUL! was unapologetically black in every way possible. The program was a breeding ground for artists who would not have been on television otherwise.

Artists such as Patti Labelle, Arsenio Hall, Earth, Wind & Fire, Ashford & Simpson, The Last Poets, Gladys Knight and others received their first televised appearances. They shared the spotlight on the show with established black entertainers and intellectuals like Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Sidney Poitier, Toni Morrison and Nikki Giovanni who openly criticized the unfair treatment of black people in America.

Through archival footage and interviews with staff and celebrities, directors Melissa Haizlip and Samuel D. Pollard create an effective and resonating portrait of a show whose impact should never be forgotten. Mr. SOUL! does not dive too deep into Ellis Haizlip’s personal life, although we get a brief glimpse at a devastating family tragedy, but his genius is clearly on display throughout.

Fifty years later, the fight for representation in the media and the arts continues. Mr. SOUL! is an empowering reminder of just how much visionaries like Ellis Haizlip paved the way for generations of successful black artists in mainstream culture.

Friday, April 27, 9 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Saturday, April 28, 10 AM, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Saturday, May 5, 6 PM, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema