Combustible Celluloid
With: Blair Underwood, Harry Belafonte, Questlove, Nikki Giovanni, Stan Lathan, Novella Nelson, Carmen De Lavallade, Kathleen Cleaver, Felipe Luciano
Written by: Melissa Haizlip
Directed by: Melissa Haizlip, Sam Pollard
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 104
Date: 08/28/2020

Mr. Soul! (2020)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Soul' Kiss

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There's a moment in Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit, in the midst of all the social unrest of 1967, wherein a television set is on in the background of an apartment in a Black neighborhood, tuned to some cheerful show starring an all-white cast.

It's a brilliant moment that underlines the tone-deaf nature of systemic racism. Fortunately, the following year, 1968, a show debuted that provided an alternative.

The documentary Mr. Soul! tells the story of the variety show Soul!, which ran on the educational network NET from 1968 to 1973, and of its brilliant and charismatic creator/producer/host Ellis Haizlip.

It's available through the Roxie Theater's virtual cinema program, in which 50% of ticket sales go to keeping this local treasure afloat.

Written and co-directed by Ellis's niece Melissa Haizlip, Mr. Soul! relies on modern-day interviews with many behind-the-scenes folks, as well as some of its onscreen guests, and younger viewers that were inspired by the show, such as The Roots's Questlove.

Actor Blair Underwood provides narration over animated stills in which spoken words magically appear in written form.

But the doc's real draw is the amazing archival footage. It includes performances (or snippets of performances) by Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Ashford & Simpson, The Delfonics, Kool & the Gang, the insane Pharoah Sanders, and many more, plus poets and dancers, and notable guests such as Muhammad Ali, Sidney Poitier, James Baldwin, and Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee.

Then there's Ellis himself, who died in 1991. Openly gay, he adopted a calm, intellectual screen presence, with his neat wardrobe, glasses and huge mustache, and his soft-spoken, measured voice.

A highlight is watching him conduct interviews, flinging hardballs disguised as softballs, and even taking on controversial figures such as Louis Farrakhan.

His interview with Betty Shabazz is a model of empathy, attempting to reach her as a human being, and not just as Malcolm X's widow.

Sadly, the doc does invoke news footage and harsh images from the time, illustrating how progressive movements like the Soul! show were seen as enemies of established, white society. And it's heartbreaking to consider how little has changed.

But the glorious takeaway is that Soul! was such a positive force for as long as it was. It was a celebration of Blackness, Black culture, and Black creativity that was long overdue, and is much needed again.

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