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Mr. Soul!: A Case Study in Indie Film Distribution


Documentary Feature
Director: Melissa Haizlip
Producer(s): Melissa Haizlip
Co-Producer: Doug Blush
Financing: Grants, Crowdfunding
Production: 10 years
Shooting Format: DVC Pro, C300, Sony F7, Blackmagic, RED ONE, RED Dragon
Screening Format: DCP; Blu-Ray
Premiere: Tribeca 2018
Awards: Mr. SOUL! has received 32 Nominations and won 21 awards including 14 film festival awards. Highlights include 2021 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Writing in a Documentary (Television or Film), 2020 Critics Choice Award for Best First Documentary Feature, 2019 Inaugural Library of Congress Lavine / Ken Burns Prize for Film (Finalist Award), 2018 IDA Award, Best Music Documentary. Best Documentary Audience Award: AFI DOCS, Woodstock Film Festival, AGLIFF. Best Documentary Jury Awards: Pan African Film Festival, Urbanworld, Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival.

Official Synopsis

Before Oprah, before Arsenio, there was Mr. SOUL! Ellis Haizlip ensures the Revolution will be televised with "SOUL!," America’s first “Black Tonight Show,” providing expanded images of African Americans, shifting the gaze from inner-city poverty and violence to the vibrancy of the Black Arts Movement.

From the Producer

"Mr. SOUL!" illuminates how "SOUL!" became one of the most successful and culturally significant Black-produced television shows in U.S. television history, providing expanded images of African Americans, shifting the gaze from inner-city poverty and violence to the vibrancy of the Black Arts Movement, and paving the way for today’s Black television hosts.

Stylistically, this documentary honors the vibrant, edgy style of the original "SOUL!" series. We shot using two to five cameras, featuring the trademark bold and innovative cinematography of Hans Charles. We were inspired to make "Mr. SOUL!" as visually dynamic and culturally radical as each original episode of "SOUL!"

The time for Ellis Haizlip’s voice is now. The United States is on the eve of a great racial reckoning. We’re looking deeply at issues of systemic racism, and we’re having conversations about where we want our country to go and how we might get there together. And in order to get there, it is tremendously important to have Black people in key decision-making roles throughout the media industry. My uncle’s story is an excellent reminder of this—of why our stories, told by our people, matter now more than ever.

At last the nation is getting "SOUL!" We were beyond honored to bring "Mr. SOUL!" and Ellis Haizlip to public television in time for PBS’s 50th anniversary—a true homecoming that recognizes PBS and the Ford Foundation as being incubators of diversity, inclusion, creativity, and freedom of expression on national public television.

Ellis Haizlip was faithfully committed to pushing the culture forward, to bringing the culture and the myriad talent and politic of Blackness to the forefront, and his story makes "Mr. SOUL!" a moveable feast for everyone gathered at the family table. Our film captures a critical moment in culture, the impact of which continues to resonate, and an unsung hero whose voice we need in order to restore the soul of a nation. "Mr. SOUL!" is a love letter to Black culture, Black history, Black excellence, Black Arts, and Black lives.

The revolution will be televised, again.

Development & Financing

Melissa Haizlip conceived the idea for "Mr. SOUL!" in 2008 when she realized it was time for the world to know the story of her uncle, Ellis Haizlip and his important contributions to television history. SOUL! was a groundbreaking series that aired on PBS from 1968 -1973 and launched the careers of many African-American icons including Ashford and Simpson, Earth, Wind and Fire, Al Green, and more. As Melissa recalls, “It was this incredible moment in time; the intersection of the Black Arts Movement, freedom of speech, and post-civil rights, that had been unexplored, in terms of being acknowledged as a pivotal moment of change in the perception of African-Americans, and also African-American culture, and the representation of both. And so I really felt that not only were many of the master makers of African-American culture becoming mature and possibly leaving us in the near future, but it was also important to tell this story and tell it honestly. It was imperative to revisit this moment in time while also revealing this extraordinary show that had not only slipped under the radar, but had not yet really firmly taken its rightful place in the annals of historically significant television shows and the history of late-night television.”

At the time, Melissa had yet to produce or direct a film, but she had a great idea and a very big, ambitious dream. It was daunting at first, but she was convinced that if she assembled the right team, and found the right foundational support, the team could raise the awareness of the story and also place it appropriately within American history. In 2009 she formed a production company and went about figuring out how to build a team and create the story. There was much to be done. She needed to find a producing partner, and learn how to write grants. 

She assembled a Board of Academic Advisers that consisted of poet Sonia Sanchez, former President of the National Urban League Hugh Price, professor / author Gayle Wald, founder of Scribe Video Center Louis Massiah, Melissa Harris-Perry, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and others, to advise on the academic spine of the film. She applied for a research and development grant with Black Public Media (formerly the National Black Programming Consortium, an organization that Ellis Haizlip had helped to form), and was awarded an R&D grant to research, travel, go to archives, read historical documentation, buy books and write scripts. She also used the money to create the SOUL! Summit, patterned after the “school” created for Henry Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize, bringing together scholars, historians, producers, public television heads and academics to incubate the story, during an all-day symposium of panels relevant to the themes of the show. They culled from the panels to help inform the film and the scripts that Melissa was writing.

Melissa continued writing grant proposals, receiving repeated rejections (one film organization turned her down 17 times!) but eventually received development grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which evolved after myriad submissions as well as building relationships with the senior programming officers. The day the NEA award was announced, Melissa says “I was euphoric, but the very next day they announced in the New York Times that there would be budget cuts to the arts.” The NEA had announced to the team what their award would be, but they only received half due to the cuts. “I was still grateful to receive it but that's a real example of how budget cuts in the arts directly impact artists, especially for an unknown filmmaker such as myself, really just trying to make it work.”

Three years into the process, Melissa continued researching and traveling and conducting more pre-interviews. She had yet to receive a production grant, so she was trying to gather enough money and footage to put together a fundraising trailer. One of the first filmmaker groups to acknowledge the project was IFP, accepting "Mr. SOUL!" into its Spotlight on Documentaries forum in 2010. “That was the first time that we organized and presented ourselves to the public. You can imagine from when we shot our first interview in 2009 to 2010, we were hustling to create something that we could pitch during IFP’s Film Week where we would present our fundraising trailer. To be accepted into IFP was just tremendous because suddenly we're here for a week in New York –  a small production team of two people out of L.A. – trying to figure out how to pitch and present our film on the strength of our work-in-progress, which was only 20 minutes long.” 

That screening at IFP also caught the attention of editor Sam Pollard. Melissa had long been a fan and admirer of his work and invited him to be the editor of the project. Sam was familiar with Ellis Haizlip and with "SOUL!," having watched and been inspired by the show while growing up in NY. Sam and Melissa formed a great collaboration and he eventually became co-director of the film.

Melissa was awarded the NEH production grant. The grant was what’s known as a “cost-share,” for which (once a budget was approved), the balance of the budget would be shared with another funding organization. ”That took almost two years because we still had to knock on so many other doors and say, ‘well we have this fantastic grant from the NEH but we can't spend it until someone grants us finishing funds.’” Those monies were released in 2016 when Melissa received a grant from the Ford Foundation, which completed the cost-share. Melissa received additional grants from the International Documentary Association (Pare Lorentz Grant), Firelight Media, Chaz and Roger Ebert Foundation, the Awesome Foundation, and ITVS, to name a few. She became a fellow of Film Independent’s signature diversity program Project: Involve, where she was mentored, and was able to workshop the script. She also became a fellow in the Firelight Media Doc Lab and honed her producing skills at the PGA Power of Diversity workshop.


Crafting the story of the documentary was a challenge because there was so much information to sort through. "SOUL!" was on the air from 1968-1973, during a tumultuous time in American history. The assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, the Black Power Movement, were all issues that the nation was grappling with and "SOUL!" emerged to capture the pulse of America during that time period. “Visually speaking, we knew there would be a lot of material to go through. With the "SOUL!" show broadcasting 130 episodes over the span of five years, and each episode was an hour with no commercials, featuring a dazzling array of the most extraordinary artists, performers, activists, poets, dancers, authors, and curators of the culture. And so we knew we had a tremendous amount of material to work with, and that it would be a tremendous responsibility to try to pick the best clips. We also recognized that it was going to be very challenging, since the story had been evolving for so many years. And of course you always have the story you hope to tell versus the story you end up telling, because once you do your research, one story leads you to the next. You might think that you have the story, as you try to imagine what everyone would say, but then they sit down in front of you and you realize ‘oh that's a rabbit hole I never anticipated.’”

When Melissa and the team looked at all the material, they realized that they had three storylines: 1) The story of "SOUL!" during its five seasons, from its inception to its controversial cancellation. This storyline would highlight the most salient moments and performances of the show against a swiftly changing political landscape. 2) The story of Ellis Haizlip himself, for which they decided to focus only on the time period of his life during the show. 3) The zeitgeist: the story of what was happening in the Black community as well as the nation at large. The task was to collapse all three storylines into one, to seamlessly weave together all three narratives. The goal behind this structure was to tell a story that was historically, emotionally, racially, culturally, and artistically accurate, which was a huge undertaking.

Melissa was particularly mindful of the structure of the film due to her personal attachment to the story. “My personal attachment is that yes, I was in love with the story because I had lived it and Ellis was my mentor, my spirit animal and my total inspiration in life, but I was convinced that regardless of how I felt, the story still was valid and important on so many different levels. I was conscientious about this story of a broadcast pioneer becoming hagiographic. I didn’t want people to say, ‘Oh well, you know, you’re related to him so of course you're going to make a valentine to your uncle’ and I would repeatedly say ‘No, it's much more important than that and the story is larger than I am.’”

She wanted Ellis Haizlip to be at the center of his own story, and didn’t want everyone else in the film to speak on his behalf. She wanted him to have agency and for people to hear his words in real life the way he would have expressed them. She hunted down as many of his quotes, interviews, articles, journals and recordings as she could find, convinced it would be a good idea to have his character voiced, since Ellis was queer, and so outspoken. She was inspired by the documentary "I Am Not Your Negro," in which Samuel L. Jackson voiced the character of James Baldwin, and wanted to make Ellis a three-dimensional character. She was a huge fan of Blair Underwood’s television acting work dating back to “LA Law” and “In Treatment,” and had heard his voice-over work in several documentaries. But it was a "Lion King" spinoff called "The Lion Guard" that caught her ear, and she figured Blair would be perfect. She secured a meeting with him through his agents and mutual friends, and he loved the story and the character. Mr. Underwood agreed not only to embody the role of Ellis Haizlip by voicing his character, but also volunteered to executive produce the project.

Festival Preparation & Strategy

The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018, which was also the 50th anniversary year of the show. “SOUL!" taped its first performance on September 8, 1968 and here we were screening on April 22, 2018, 50 years later. The synergy in that was just so beautiful. Everybody loves a good tentpole event, and the idea that we were premiering in the very city where the original show had started out (initially as a local show that was then broadcast nationwide once the Public Broadcasting Act was created in 1969, literally creating the PBS system). This was a really exciting time—to have a quintessential New York film screening at a quintessential New York festival.”

Melissa had always dreamed of reimagining the "SOUL!" show for a new generation. She decided to create and produce a special music component in tandem with the premiere. Immediately after the credits rolled, the screening was followed by a live show, with performances from the film’s composer Robert Glasper, the incredible Lalah Hathaway (whose father, Donny Hathaway, performed on "SOUL!"), Sonia Sanchez reciting her poetry, Kyle Abraham dancing a solo, and Blair Underwood hosting the evening in the style of Ellis Haizlip, interviewing Melissa and key people from the film. The pièce de résistance was a reunion of The Last Poets, who reminded everyone what will happen “When the Revolution Comes.” “It was really electric to be able to have just seen the film and then have this incredible night that was modeled after music events that I had seen at Sundance. The intersection of film and was very exciting to recreate "SOUL!" for a new audience. It was really spectacular, and the audience went nuts. I don't think we could have pulled it off anywhere else.”

The team built out a robust film festival rollout to build an audience and community, and allow as many people to experience the film as possible. Says Melissa, "It's been an extraordinary journey to have brought the film to over 45 festivals and to have received 14 awards. I'm beyond honored and humbled, and I believe it's only the tip of the iceberg. We need stories of Black excellence now more than ever.”

Virtual Cinema Release and PBS Premiere

In August 2020, during the revolution and social uprising in response to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the team decided to release the film virtually. “We wanted to give back to the Black community with an uplifting, positive film, and remind our people of their greatness,” says Melissa. The pandemic also inspired the filmmakers to pivot in the face of an uncertain distribution future. Melissa and her team, guided by David Magdael and his newly formed boutique, self-distribution company Open Your Eyes and Think MF, released the film in several theaters with virtual cinemas, in order to qualify for the Academy Awards and begin a robust Oscar campaign. The film went from streaming from two theaters to 60 to 96 virtual cinema partners, including independent theaters, arthouse cinemas, film organizations, and cultural institutions, and several drive-ins, which were a safe alternative to being indoors during the height of the pandemic. The team was innovative, holding virtual Q&A’s, livestreaming on Facebook and YouTube. During that time, Mr. SOUL! was shortlisted for the 93rd Academy Awards, for Best Original Song, nominated for 5 Critics Choice Documentary Awards, nominated for the Cinema Eye Honors for Outstanding Debut Feature, and nominated for 3 NAACP Image Awards. "Mr. SOUL!" won the 2020 Critics Choice Documentary Award for Best First Documentary Feature and the 2021 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Writing in a Documentary (Television or Motion Picture).

On February 22, 2021, "Mr. SOUL!" made its PBS debut during Black History Month on Independent Lens. The film was cut down to broadcast length, and received such high ratings nationwide that PBS decided to preempt their national programming to rebroadcast the film that same week nationwide on a Friday, a first for the series. In the month leading up to the premiere, the film was highlighted on all of the PBS stations across the country as their main film for Black History month. The team held pop-up 1-hour screenings and community engagements, and created a robust Discussion Guide to be used as an educational tool, to help organizers, educators, and viewers generate dialogue about diverse representation and inclusion in media, as well as about using the arts as a tool for activism and civic engagement. The guide provides background information on the documentary, suggested discussion questions, and a list of resources dedicated to the arts, media, Black history, and culture.

CNN, Educational Distribution, Streaming Platform and Soundtrack Release

Thanks to the success of the film, the "SOUL!" series is featured in the new CNN original series, “The Story of Late Night.” The series, in which Melissa Haizlip is interviewed talking about Ellis Haizlip’s work, premiered in May 2021, situates “SOUL!” squarely in the canon of influential late-night television shows.

The team secured educational distribution through Film Platform. This month, the team will announce the upcoming premiere of "Mr. SOUL!" on a major streaming platform, the release of the Oscar short-listed song “Show Me Your Soul” by Robert Glasper and Lalah Hathaway, and the "Mr. SOUL!" soundtrack release on a new label. It’s been quite a journey, and "Mr. SOUL!" is still going strong!

Note: This site's Publisher, Chaz Ebert, is an Executive Producer on this film. 



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