On Video is a new, regular column in which film curator and arts organizer Peter Lucas points to a range of off-the-beaten-path videos that can be streamed online but might not otherwise get noticed. This week’s shelf: Early-1970s episodes of the socially conscious African American variety television show Soul! and a new documentary about that show and its creator and host Ellis Haizlip.
There are a whole lot of narrative movies, documentaries, television shows, experimental films, and media miscellany available online — more than ever before. But, as you may have discovered while at home during the pandemic, there’s also a lot of great stuff that is either difficult to find or missing altogether. Further, the process of exploring the internet media landscape is often cumbersome and confusing, especially if you’re trying to look beyond top hits. This regular column will point to some off-the-beaten-path alternatives to the usual Netflix fare — videos that can be streamed online through different platforms’ collections or virtual screenings but that you might not otherwise notice. “On Video” will focus on the fringes and will also be informed by my own eclectic interests. So, not everything here is going to be your cup of tea. But I do hope you’ll at least enjoy reading these, and at most, take a few chances.
For this first installment, I want to bring your attention to the often overlooked, late-’60s/early-’70s TV show, Soul!. I’d encountered bootlegs of Soul! over the years, and these amazing media artifacts always struck me as evidence of something completely unique. But, knowing that the archival practices of local TV stations back then were little to none, I never thought I’d see a legitimate release of full episodes. Recently, I was very happy to find that there are a number of complete episodes of the show available to stream online! Over the past month, I’ve been watching this collection of available episodes, which comprises about 25% of the episodes that were made and about 80% of the episodes that are known to have survived. There is perhaps no better time for re-discovery of this long-buried treasure of Black independent media.
Soul! was a groundbreaking variety television program created in the late-1960s by Ellis Haizlip as an unfiltered, eclectic, non-commercial vehicle for African American arts, culture, community, and social justice. It was videotaped live in a New York studio and aired weekly between 1968 and 1973 on public television stations in cities around the country. At a time when few positive representations of Black culture were seen on TV, Soul! was a revolutionary flower grown through a crack in the mainstream television landscape — a crack opened by the non-profit NET and the dawn of PBS. The show was immensely popular with African American audiences where it aired, seen as a much-needed inspiration for Black pride and future-imagining during a particularly tumultuous time.
Soul! dispensed with categorical distinctions between so-called high and low art forms and genres to instead present a varied mix of musical performance, poetry readings, interviews, and occasional interludes of dance, theater, and photo montage. Being non-commercial, Soul! had the freedom of uncensored discussion and flexibility of format. One needs to see full episodes to appreciate the show’s organic flow, the frankness of its discussions, the intimacy of its space, and the allowance of its pace. Seen today, a half-century later, these transmissions serve as a striking reminder of what socially engaged interdisciplinary arts presentation can be, and a great resource for important and often overlooked African American works of all kinds.
There are 24 episodes of Soul! available to stream on Amazon Prime (free for Prime members or a buck per episode otherwise) and also on the smaller platform ShoutFactoryTV (free, but a little less user-friendly). On both streaming platforms, these are listed as sequential episodes of “Season 1,” but my research has shown that they’re actually various episodes from across its final three years, 1970-73, and that all of the listed air dates are wrong. If you’re interested, I’ve included an episode list at the bottom of this article for which I’ve corrected the dates and added a little additional content information (I’ve kept the episode numbers and titles consistent with their online listings for easy navigation). These may seem like small details, but I think specific context is important here.
Featured guests in these 24 available episodes include authors James Baldwin, Chester Himes, and Vertamae Grosvenor; poets Nikki Giovanni (a frequent guest and sometimes host), Camille Yarbrough, Felipe Luciano, and Norman Jordan; actors Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Cicely Tyson, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis; public figures Jesse Jackson, Stokely Carmichael, and Muhammad Ali; musical performers Earth, Wind & Fire, Al Green, Bill Withers, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Archie Bell & the Drells, Taj Mahal, Mandrill, Miriam Makeba, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Willie Colón, McCoy Tyner, Max Roach, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, and Bobbi Humphrey, and many, many others.
The format ranges from interesting combinations (for instance, singer Bill Withers, jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, and poet Mae Jackson trade the stage in a 1971 episode) to focused shows (such as the full-episode tribute to the poetry of Bob Kaufman or the two episodes dedicated solely to an intergenerational conversation between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni). I’d originally intended to suggest just a few favorite episodes here, but since they’re all good and each unique, I’ll instead just urge you to either peruse the list below and choose something of interest, or just start watching and see where it takes you.
Some weeks into my watching this collection, I got news that the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston would be presenting the new feature-length documentary Mr. Soul! in its virtual cinema series. Now streaming through the end of September ($12), Mr. Soul! profiles the show’s creator, producer, and frequent host Ellis Haizlip — an openly gay man who was closely associated with the Black Arts Movement — and outlines the show’s story, contributors, impact, and historical significance. Co-directed by Ellis’ niece Melissa Haizlip and Sam Pollard, the film is great and includes a lot of short clips, including a handful from episodes that are not available to stream. You might choose to watch this first as an introduction, or, like me, check out some original episodes of the show first so that you’ve got a personal sense of the thing before digging into its backstory. The trailer below gives you a good, quick glimpse of both the show and the doc.
Mr. Soul! (Documentary, 2018)
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston virtual cinema ($12 for 72-hour viewing period)
Soul! (TV Show, 24 59-minute episodes, 1970-73)
Amazon Prime Video (Free rental for Prime members, or purchase for .99 per episode/19.99 for all 24)
ShoutFactoryTV (Free, but the platform is not quite as functional as Prime)
Available episodes of Soul! (with corrected airdates and some additional content information):
1 – Muhammad Ali (March 5, 1970)
Singer Jerry Butler guest hosts, with musical performances by Billy Butler & the Infinity, Vivian Reed, and Archie Bell & the Drells, an interview with Muhammad Ali, and a segment with James Earl Jones introducing the new PBS children’s show, Sesame Street.
2 – Mandrill / LaBelle (October 20, 1971)
Music groups LaBelle (featuring Patti Labelle) and Mandrill perform, and host Ellis Haizlip interviews Mrs. Georgia Jackson, mother of slain Soledad Brother George Jackson.
3 – Frederick Douglass (November 3, 1971)
“The Roots of Black Protest,” Frederick Douglass’ orations, performed by actor Arthur Burghardt, with performances by drummer Max Roach and his jazz ensemble and the 22 voices of the J.C. White Singers.
4 – James Baldwin, Part 1 (December 15, 1971)
The first of a two-part conversation between author James Baldwin and poet Nikki Giovanni, taped in London.
5 – James Baldwin, Part 2 (December 22, 1971)
The second installment of a special two-part program featuring James Baldwin in conversation with poet Nikki Giovanni.
6 – Bill Withers / Mae Jackson (December 29, 1971)
Singer Bill Withers performs five songs from his debut album Just As I Am (released six months prior) and is interviewed; jazz pianist McCoy Tyner’s Quartet performs two pieces; poet Mae Jackson reads her own works.
7 – Miriam Makeba / Muhammad Ali (January 5, 1972)
Guest host Nikki Giovanni opens the show with her “Kidnap Poem” and presents performances by South African-born singer Miriam Makeba (then married to Stokely Carmichael) and singing group the Delfonics, and an interview with heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
8 – Jerry Butler (January 12, 1972)
Singer Jerry Butler with vocal group Peaches perform, actress (and Assistant Producer of the show) Anna Horsford reads poetry, and dentist Dr. Stanley Nelson talks about tooth and gum care.
9 – Lee Morgan / Horace Silver / Bobbi Humphrey (January 26, 1972)
This all-jazz show features performances by pianist Horace Silver and his group the United States of Mind, trumpeter Lee Morgan’s quintet (just before Morgan’s untimely death), and flutist Bobbi Humphrey (then only 22 years old). Silver is interviewed.
10 – Gladys Knight & the Pips (February 9, 1972)
Gladys Knight & the Pips perform seven songs, and poets Carolyn Rodgers and Norman Jordan read works (including Jordan’s “One-Eyed Critics”).
11 – Al Green (February 16, 1972)
Three performances by singer Al Green including his recently released “Let’s Stay Together,” performances by gospel vocal group the Isaac Douglas Singers, and readings by actress Alice Childress, poet Camille Yarbrough, and author Vertamae Grosvenor.
12 – Merry Clayton / Rev. Jesse Jackson (March 8, 1972)
Singer Merry Clayton performs five songs, Jesse Jackson talks with host Ellis Haizlip about his newly formed organization Operation PUSH and reads a few of his own poems.
13 – Chester Himes / The Dells (March 15, 1972)
Author Chester Himes (in a rare U.S. appearance since moving to France in the 1950s) is interviewed, actor Al Freeman Jr. reads from Himes’ autobiography The Quality of Hurt, and singing group The Dells performs five songs.
14 – Harry Belafonte / Novella Nelson/ Sidney Poitier (March 22, 1972)
Actors Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte discuss their new film Buck and the Preacher (with film clips) and a range of other topics, Broadway star Novella Nelson performs.
15 – Ruby Dee / Ossie Davis (March 29, 1972)
In a show dedicated to the poet Bob Kaufman, actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis read Kaufman’s poetry accompanied by live music by composer/saxophonist Lucky Thompson and an eight-piece jazz ensemble. Host Ellis Haizlip interviews Davis and Dee about their own work.
16 – Nick Ashford / Valerie Simpson (October 11, 1972)
A full concert of songwriting/performing duo Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson performing soul, rock, and gospel songs, including some selections from Valerie Simpson’s recent solo albums.
17 – “Shades of Soul!” Part 1 (November 15, 1972)
Musical performances by Tito Puente and Willie Colon with their orchestras. Guest host, poet Felipe Luciano (one of the Original Last Poets) opens the show with poetry over percussion, relates a history of Afro-Latin music, and interviews the bandleaders. Clips from the Fania film Our Latin Thing.
18 – “Shades of Soul!” Part 2 (November 22, 1972)
Musical performances by percussionist Mongo Santamaria and his band, and singing group LaBelle (featuring Patti LaBelle).
19 – “Black Fire” (December 13, 1972)
Clips from the new film Sounder, interviews with the film’s star actress Cicely Tyson and musician Taj Mahal (who composed the film’s soundtrack), solo performances by Taj Mahal (on kalimba, banjo, and resonator guitar), and performances by group Exuma, led by Bahamian musician Tony McKay.
20 – “Elements” (January 10, 1973)
Co-hosts Gerry Bledsoe and Ellis Haizlip present musical performances by the group Earth, Wind & Fire (following their early album, Last Days And Time), and singer Linda Hopkins.
21 – “In A New Way” (January 17, 1973)
Musical performances by the Spinners and the Jimmy Castor Bunch.
22 – “Wherever We May Be” (February 7, 1973)
Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael talks about his current plans.
23 – “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (February 21, 1973)
Musical performances by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and singer Esther Marrow, and an interview with Ida Lewis, editor of Encore magazine.
24 – “To the People, Thank You” (March 7, 1973)
For the final episode of the show, Ellis Haizlip and the Soul! staff read poetry, share letters from viewers, and show previous performance clips including LaBelle and King Curtis (the show’s original musical director, who passed away during its run).