"Mr. Soul" Documentary: A Labor of Love

10/17/2012, 6:30 p.m.

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 uncles 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."