By Melissa Haizlip

Before Oprah, before Arsenio, there was Mr. SOUL! From 1968 to 1973, the public-television variety show SOUL!, guided by the enigmatic producer and host Ellis Haizlip, offered an unfiltered, uncompromising celebration of black literature, poetry, music, and politics—voices that had few other options for national exposure, and, as a result, found the program an improbable place to call home. The series was among the first to provide expanded images of African Americans on television, shifting the gaze from inner-city poverty and violence to the vibrancy of the Black Arts Movement.

With participants’ recollections and illuminating archival clips, Mr. SOUL! captures a critical moment in culture whose impact continues to resonate. SOUL! merged artists from the margins with post–civil rights Black radical thought. Ellis Haizlip was openly gay and committed to charting new aesthetic territory, and he brought the avant-garde into the mainstream by foregrounding poetry and politics. Mr. Soul! explores the tumultuous historical context of SOUL!’s origins, and how the series’ incredible parade of talent offered a powerful rebuttal to an unfortunate television tradition that neglected blacks, confining them to insulting stereotypes.