We are experiencing the most propagandized period of American filmmaking since World War II. But the goal isn’t cultural unity as it was then. Proof of this dire circumstance is found in the new documentary Mr. Soul! about the relatively obscure media personality Ellis Haizlip.
Haizlip, a bon-vivant colleague of James Baldwin, Alvin Ailey, and other race-conscious sophisticates of the late 20th century, gets his own biography in Mr. Soul! That title references Soul! — the television series Haizlip hosted from 1968 to 1971, which showcased the period’s burgeoning black popular culture and political stirrings. His guests ranged from Al Green to Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte to Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka to Stevie Wonder, the Spinners, and Louis Farrakhan.
But Haizlip himself gets sacrificed to “the movement” — specifically to co-directors Melissa Haizlip and Sam Pollard’s trendy notion that black American politics and culture have not changed. Through Haizlip’s mostly forgotten semi-celebrity, they use the past to promote the Millennial ideal that activism is all, that culture and self-expression in the cause of politics are everything.
It’s a proposition worth arguing over, but nobody does. Most current docs and dramatic features are angled toward politicization. Mr. Soul! commemorates Haizlip as a figurehead of cultural segregation. An outrageous closing montage of contemporary black celebrities who represent national, cultural division supposedly fulfills the entrepreneurial dreams of impresario Haizlip.
That parade of the usual woke pop idols — from Beyoncé to Colin Kaepernick and worse — contradicts Haizlip’s own statement of purpose. On the last episode of Soul! — after being dropped from the schedule of its public-television sponsor — Haizlip disclosed, “It is a dream of mine that black people can come together and form a union of coexisting in an artistic world where everything can be beautiful, and you can avoid a lot of the discussions and hassles because they understand.” This simple-enough brotherhood manifesto reveals the ambivalence felt by black cultural renegades such as Baldwin, whose idea about the Negro’s “profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror” is invoked by Haizlip’s sign-off speech; in this, he cited “black people with God-given mirror eyes, reflecting love and hate, black people, miracle people, spiritual people.”
Mr. Soul! never digs into Haizlip’s soul. His personal life is kept at a distance, and his consciousness is viewed from TV’s exterior. Felipe Luciano of the Last Poets resorts to an effeminate vocal impersonation when recalling Haizlip’s reticence: “I am not going to get involved in the politics of the street, I’m just not going to do it.” Luciano surmises, “Ellis believed there was no need to embroil himself in the rough-and-tumble politics of the street. He was a noble, a patrician.” Filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris does better, recalling how a pink-sweatered Haizlip “took Farrakhan to task concerning sexual orientation.”
Luciano’s effort to push Haizlip into radicalism typifies how contemporary documentaries work — the pattern set by public television and its commitment to leftist partisanship. Following Ken Burns’s template, Mr. Soul! lines up a roster of talking-head authorities, including Gayle Wald, author of It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power TV. But the doc’s TV history is offensively biased, giving short shrift to such pioneering black programs as Black Journal, Gil Noble’s Like It Is, and Don Cornelius’s Soul Train. Haizlip gets credited for “effecting change” despite the fact that Motown and Stax had already broken through mainstream-media segregation.
Mr. Soul! protects the PBS franchise despite its ultimate betrayal of Haizlip’s ambition. So the filmmakers blame Nixon, a standard PBS move, using White House tapes of Nixon and his cabinet scrutinizing how the Center for Public Broadcasting operates: “They’re quarreling over the federal trough,” a devastatingly precise description that still applies.
Stuck between race entertainment and race dissent, as if radicalism is a public service, Mr. Soul is merely the latest example showing how documentaries have become a radical underground industry. Grant foundations, TV networks, and Hollywood studios have not figured out a more thorough, conscientious way of relaying information.