When PBS Had 'Soul!'
Each week, host Ellis Haizlip turned public TV into a hip, all-black affair with Soul! A new documentary brings the iconic show back to life.
And Soul! proved to be a hit. A 1968 Harris poll estimated that more than 65 percent of African-American households with access to the show watched it on a regular basis. In the early 1970s, prisoners in Atlanta purportedly staged a sit-down strike until they were allowed to stay up late enough to watch the show. At the time, Haizlip said that that one day the show "will be included in the television history of this decade when things go down."
Before Ashford's death last month, the documentary filmed the singer and his wife in their Manhattan restaurant, the Sugar Bar. During the interview they sat side by side, reminiscing about their time on Soul!
"I was so nervous," Simpson said. "It was our first time on television. We hadn't recorded an album together yet. [Haizlip] foresaw something that was about to be -- something we didn't see in ourselves. After the show, so many people wrote in and said that we should be a duet. The thought had never entered my mind."
A Cultural Legacy
By 1973, Haizlip sensed that the end was drawing near for the show. There were rumblings that shows in some markets weren't being aired or were being aired late at night, when no one could see them. Funders were asking if he could "integrate" the show. Haizlip's reponse? "We're integrating the network."
The network executives pulled the plug and said they were replacing it with a more integrated show, Interface, but the money eventually ended up going toward developing the pioneering newsmagazine The MacNeil/Lehrer Report. When the show was canceled, there were protests from the Urban League, the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the D.C.-based federation of black newspapers. Haizlip received more than 100,000 letters of support.
On the last show in 1973, Haizlip -- unflappable, talking in subdued tones, with his neatly tapered Afro, reading glasses and buttoned-up brown suede butterfly-collared jacket -- declared that Soul! was only the beginning of "the route of documenting our own history."
Melissa Haizlip said that she hopes her documentary will inspire black youths to get to know their own history at a time when they are saddled with an overabundance of reality-television programming and few alternatives that instill a sense of black cultural pride and consciousness.
"We don't express ourselves openly anymore," said Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters at a screening of Mr. Soul! in Los Angeles. "It's not politically correct to do so. I just have visions that a movie like this will inspire young people. They have to see this so they can begin to understand that there is power in telling the truth."
Ericka Blount Danois is a music-and-culture writer and professor at the University of Maryland's Medill College of Journalism. Her work has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Wax Poetics and Vibe.