The death of pop superstar Michael Jackson on June 25, 2009 proved to be the catalyst that moved Melissa Haizlip to really begin pouring more energy into a full-length documentary film she had been working on about her uncle Ellis Haizlip.
Haizlip, a Los Angeles native with D.C. roots, said her uncle produced Jackson's 21st birthday party at Studio 54 in New York.
"What shocked me out of my comfort zone was Michael's death. On a personal level, I'll never get that story. I wanted him to say it, to tell the story," said Haizlip, producer and director of 'Mr. SOUL! Ellis Haizlip and the Birth of Black Power TV.' "I realized the urgency of getting the stories of the mature master makers of American culture. I thought this could foreshadow the passing of these masters. They need to tell their stories while they're still here. Not everyone has the resources to make their own film."
"I have wanted to make this film for my entire life, having a deep personal connection to the story I've actually lived ... I remember eating oatmeal at midnight with my uncle and the guest stars he would bring home after taping the show. I would bask in the glow of all these intelligent, glamorous black people, mesmerized by my uncleʼs coterie of magical friends. It would be years before I would learn that it was James Earl Jones who had pinched my cheek, or the orphaned children of Malcolm X, whom Uncle Ellis was babysitting and brought over for a play date."
Haizlip, 47, has embraced her role as a preserver of her uncle's cultural legacy. In the documentary, she has interviewed or plans to interview a number of guests who appeared on Soul!. She has teamed with noted director and filmmaker Sam Pollard to direct the documentary on the groundbreaking show and the extraordinary man responsible for its genesis. She is joined by producer Airrion Copeland and director of photography Bradford Young. The documentary will offer a behind-the-scenes look at the show from its conception to its untimely demise, including the very public battle to keep it on the air.
Haizlip said roughly 30 hours of footage has been shot, including interviews with the late Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Harry Belafonte and Abiodun Oyewale, one of the Last Poets, the group widely considered to be the grandfathers of Rap music. She hopes to complete the project in 2013.
"Ellis had black cultural and political luminaries, musicians, actors and intellectuals like James Earl Jones, Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Roberta Flack, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Arsenio Hall and Quincy Jones on Soul!," she said. He produced more than 130 hour-long shows.
The elder Haizlip, a Howard University graduate who died in 1991, was a cultural force who produced plays, concerts, performances and black cultural events, mentored many stars and created Soul!, described by George Washington University Professor Gayle Wald as "one of the most controversial, successful, and socially significant Black-produced television shows in U.S. history."
Soul!, appeared on WNET in New York, in the city first, then across the country between 1968 and 1973. It aired against the backdrop of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, civil unrest in urban cities, and blacks breaking through centuries-old barriers to assert their independence. Haizlip, his niece said, was a fearless pioneer who re-conceived a Harlem Renaissance for a new era, ushering giants and rising stars of black American culture onto the national television stage.
"The platform he created empowered women, gays and the black cultural revolution. For example, he let Nikki Giovanni interview James Baldwin in Europe in 1971 at a time when black poetry wasn't really being promoted."
Haizlip has hosted events, including viewing parties and fundraisers in New York, D.C. and Los Angeles. On Sept. 24, she and her crew held the Kickstarter Launch Party and Fundraising Reception at the National Black Program Consortium in Harlem.
Kickstarter is a funding platform for artistic endeavors.
"The consortium is a watchdog for diversity and they are one of the heart sponsors of our film," said Haizlip. "We wanted to honor our donors and Harlem was a place with Ellis' presence."
The crowd enjoyed great food, ambience, a performance by the Last Poets, singer Maxine Brown and acclaimed chanteuse Melba Moore who surprised all with an impromptu song "which blew everyone away."
Kickstarter, Haizlip said, is special.
"It provides a level playing field by becoming a backer of projects," she explained. "We have to raise $75,000 in 30 days from Sept. 24 to Oct 24. It's an all or nothing kind of deal. If our pledges aren't met, we will not get a penny. It is such an incentive to get our message out and they tell five friends who tell five friends."
Haizlip, owner of Shoes in the Bed Productions, said the project garnered $6,500 in the first 24 hours and on Oct. 16, donors had given $28,995.
"We took the Kickstarter route because we can't wait for grants," she said. "This gives people ownership in bringing this story to life."
For more information, visit www.mrsoulmovie.com