Haizlip, who died in 1991 at 61 from cancer, had a long history of involvement in the progressive arts. Growing up in a middle-class household in segregated Washington, D.C., he began producing plays in college at Howard University. Upon graduating in 1954, he headed to New York, where he produced plays with Vinnette Carroll at the Harlem Y.M.C.A., including one starring Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones. He also produced concerts in Europe starring Marlene Dietrich and dramas overseas penned by Baldwin and Langston Hughes.
Haizlip’s father didn’t approve of his homosexuality, though some family members accepted him, including his cousin, Dr. Harold Haizlip, the father of the film’s director and an empathic speaker in the documentary. Though Haizlip guided the show from the start, he wasn’t its first host. Initially, the scholar Dr. Alvin Poussaint and the actress and educator Loretta Long split that role, but by the fifth episode the role fell to a somewhat reluctant, and awkward, Haizlip.
His first appearance displayed his daring as well as a nonjudgmental nature, a quality that allowed him to make the audience comfortable with even the more controversial guests. One episode featured the political, proto-rap group the Last Poets who purposely used racial slurs in their lyrics to counter degrading images of Black people and scotch the scourge of internalized racism. Haizlip, whose tone never wavered from calm, introduced the piece by saying, “I hope you’ll accept it in the spirit with which it is intended.”
The ease of his tone inspired Melissa Haizlip to label him a “subtle subversive.”
Haislip didn’t simply provide a platform for creative and confrontational stars. He also encouraged entirely new collaborations between them. He convinced Amiri Baraka to perform his poetry with the jazz musician Pharoah Sanders, and asked the dancer George Faison to choreograph a spontaneous piece while Stevie Wonder performed “You and I.” Likewise, he convinced Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, then working as behind-the-scenes songwriters, to become an upfront performing duo beginning with their appearance on “Soul!”
“He saw something in us that we didn’t see in ourselves,” Simpson said in a phone interview.
From the start, Haizlip positioned “Soul!” as the premiere showcase for the emerging Black Arts Movement. “This movement was the return to the Harlem Renaissance from 40 years before,” said Higgins, who, after leaving “Soul!” became a staff photographer for The New York Times.
Though the show had many white viewers, it never catered to the white gaze. “Ellis used his platform specifically for creating a conversation within the Black community,” Hendryx said. “He very much wanted that dialogue to take place.”