‘Soul!’, the Groundbreaking Public TV Show From the Black Power Era Is Rescued From the Archives

Musical acts ranged from Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Ashford & Simpson. Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin interrogated each other in a two-episode arc. Try finding a mix like that in the current PBS lineup.

Imagine a TV show with the world’s most righteously eclectic guests.

From episode to episode, you’d see the gamut of art and culture. There’d be cutting-edge jazz one week, hit-bound pop the next, and gospel mashing it up with street oratory. Emerging writers would read from their latest works. Thought leaders and activists would get to speak longer than a soundbite. Youth would occasionally be served, with teenaged magicians and the like. Stirring the pot would be a coolly erudite host, able to hold her/his own with all these guests, without talking down to them or the audience. And that audience, by the way, would be passionately devoted, overcome with joy from seeing its best self reflected so proudly on the air week after week.

This is not a pipe dream. It really did happen. And not just in fairly recent times, after cable and the Internet expanded the palette of content. No, this went down at the height of the Black Power era, when there were only three TV networks, and black folk doing much of anything righteously eclectic on TV was still a rarity.

Fittingly enough, the show was called Soul!. It does not have the black pop nostalgia cachet of its better-known brethren from the time – Shaft, Soul Train and the like – but its progressive vision of black culture was far more daring. Both its success and its demise speak to the possibilities and pitfalls of trying to make TV that both entertains and uplifts, without pandering on one end or preaching on the other.

And did I mention that all this happened on public television?

Gayle Wald rescues Soul! from the archives with It’s Been Beautiful, a carefully written account of how the show came to be, and what it accomplished in its five-year run. While she does a fine job dissecting the politics behind getting the show on the air and keeping it going, this account doesn’t fully give us a sense of how cool it must have been to see this show in its time.

The story begins, as these things often do, with an institution scrambling to act after a major government report. The year was 1968, the institution was public television (then known as educational television; the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was still around the corner), and the report came from the Kerner Commission on Civil Advisory Disorders. The commission’s report cited a lack of positive images and coverage of black people on network TV as a contributing factor to the riots that lit up Detroit and other cities in the late ‘60s. Public TV wasn’t mentioned specifically, but clearly got the message.

The Ford Foundation ponied up $5 million for public TV stations to produce shows targeted to underserved audiences. New York’s WNDT (eventually to become WNET) received $631,000 for to produce Where It’s At…, a show combining traditional public affairs talking-head programming and cultural performances, all featuring blacks on and behind the camera. Ellis Haizlip, a longtime black arts scenester, was hired to co-produce the show (in short order, he became the sole producer). One of his first acts was to change the show’s name to Soul!.

It debuted in September 1968, and was an immediate local hit. Haizlip’s insistence on booking black talent that hadn’t yet garnered mainstream appeal gave Soul! a distinctive tone, fully in keeping with the tenor of the times. The first episode featured Julian Bond and Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles (no longer an innocuous girl group, not yet the flamboyant LaBelle). Dr. Alvin Poussaint was the host; Haizlip took over that slot by week five. Other first-season guests included the Last Poets, gospel star Marion Williams, Maya Angelou, and Sam and Dave.

But there almost wasn’t a second season. The foundation declined the proposal for a second year under the initiative it originally funded. Only a furious campaign by WNDT, Haizlip’s urgent on-air appeals, and letters pouring in from viewers saved the day; Ford eventually funded Soul! directly, and funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting helped the show get broader distribution in 1970.

Soul! continued for three more seasons after that, and Wald notes many of the highlights. One 1972 episode was an hour-long Stevie Wonder concert. Musical acts ranged from Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Ashford & Simpson. Minister Louis Farrakhan and Amiri Baraka each received their own episodes. Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin interrogated each other in a two-episode arc. Try finding a mix like that in the current PBS lineup.

Alas, the good times would end abruptly. CPB ended its funding for the show in 1973, caught up by the White House’s politicized interference into public TV’s funding (a battle CPB has fought seemingly nonstop ever since), and retreating to its own predilection towards less provocative fare like Masterpiece Theater (or Downton Abbey nowadays). Soul! signed off with an emotional farewell episode, with Haizlip reading in full a letter from a viewer who eloquently declared her love for the show. The black presence on public TV – while there still was one – would come to be symbolized by Black Journal, a by-the-book public affairs show produced by Tony Brown, who was much more adept than Haizlip at navigating CPB politics.

It’s Been Beautiful, ironically, does a far better job tracing the machinations that got Soul! on the air, and eventually off the air, than it does evoking the show itself. While it’s clear there was much passion that went into its five-year run, Wald’s reporting of that passion is often dry and pedantic. Nothing much here gives any palpable sense of the disruptive experience Soul! was, or what viewers were getting that meant so much to them. In centering her discussion on the political representations within a few specific episodes, she treats the show more as fodder for an undergraduate seminar than as a singular, exiting moment in black culture and media.

While Chester Higgins’ photographs from the show are included, they’re all black-and-white; there’s no indication if he originally shot in b&w or color, but even the slightest hint of color and vibrancy in the book’s presentation would have helped matters a lot. Especially since so much of the era’s media and culture productions have been featured in lavish coffee-table tomes, a dash more production value would have helped make Wald’s case for the show’s importance a lot stronger.

Wald does herself no favor by not foregrounding the show’s animating spirit. It’s not until well into the proceedings that we learn anything about Haizlip’s background apart from his homosexuality. Clearly, he’s the central figure in the story; Soul! likely would not have happened as it did were it not for him. But Wald never gives us a full sense of who he was, how he arrived at his conception of the show (and supplanted the co-producers he originally worked with), or what he did after it ended. One thing she does is locate what should have been his signature catchphrase, his counterpart to Don Cornelius’s “love, peace…and soul!” Soul Train signoff. The book’s title comes from a comment Haizlip made to Stokely Carmichael at the end of their 1973 interview; Wald notes that the sentiment could have applied to the show’s entire body of work.

The ultimate irony was that years later, a show would emerge that borrowed some of Soul!’s righteous eclecticism, if not its political thrust. It would skew heavily towards Hollywood entertainers and pop stars, but there was room for occasional writers, thought leaders, controversial voices like Farrakhan, and even a saxophone-playing presidential candidate. That show would be hosted by Arsenio Hall – whose first TV appearance was on Soul! as that aforementioned teenaged magician.

And that’s only one example of how Soul!’s DNA informed black pop years down the line. As Wald rushes through in the book’s conclusion, that turned out to be an outsized influence for an under-funded public TV show. Haizlip and company deserve a large amount of credit for punching above their weight as long, and as effectively, as they did. But It’s Been Beautiful only scratches at the surface of what they accomplished.

RATING 6 / 10