Melissa Haizlip's documentary, “Mr. SOUL!”, won the Audience Award for Best Feature at this year's AFI DOCS Film Festival in Washington, D.C. It screened to a sold-out audience at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History. Haizlip is an emerging filmmaker who has earned many accolades for her short films, including the Chaz and Roger Ebert Producing Fellowship through PROJECT INVOLVE at the Film Independent Spirit Awards. With “Mr. SOUL!”, her directorial full length feature debut, she celebrates the legacy of her uncle, Ellis Haizlip, the trailblazing producer and host of “SOUL!”, a series renowned for being the first black “Tonight Show.”
It’s fitting that “Mr. SOUL!” was screened in the Oprah Winfrey Theatre since Oprah is one of many cultural icons whose career owes a debt to the barriers broken by Ellis. Ms. Haizlip was joined on stage for a Q&A by Chaz Ebert; acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni and Warrington Hudlin, filmmaker and Vice President of the Museum of the Moving Image. During a time period when African-Americans were not routinely featured prominently on television except in negative stereotypes, “SOUL!” (1968-1973) turned a spotlight on the Black Arts Movement represented by such timeless talents as Sidney Poitier, The Last Poets, Gladys Knight, Alvin Ailey Dance Troupe, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin and many others. Blair Underwood serves as the film’s narrator. “Mr. SOUL!” already earned the Audience Award at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, made a splash at the Tribeca Film Festival and is sure to enlighten many more audiences on the festival circuit.
Ms. Haizlip's film progressed with participation in the PROJECT INVOLVE Lab at Film Independent. It is a signature mentorship program and will be celebrating its 25th anniversary with a gala in September. You can learn more about it here: https://www.filmindependent.org/programs/project-involve/support/.
Another highlight at AFI DOCS this year was Rory Kennedy’s “Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow,” a film centering on the people who have devoted their lives to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It premiered at the National Air and Space Museum, and there were several astronauts in attendance, who revealed that one of NASA's next missions will be a trip to Mars. Kennedy’s prolific career as a documentarian recently earned her an Oscar nomination for 2014’s “Last Days in Vietnam.”
AFI Docs fest is a premiere film festival in America devoted to connecting film audiences with national opinion leaders, filmmakers and intriguing film subjects.
For more information on AFI DOCS, visit the festival's official site.