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Mr. Soul! A Variety Show Revolutionary

For many Black people the late night and variety programs that come on cable tv don’t resonate nor interest them. They’re overwhelmingly white and not nearly as accommodating as they claim to be. This is true now in 2020 and has been true as far back as variety television has been a thing. Of course, there has been the occasional show that managed to make it on air. Such as The Nat King Cole Show, the time when Harry Belafonte hosted The Tonight Show and The Arsenio Hall Show. But none have been quite as successful or impactful as Ellis Haizlip’s Soul!, which was the first of its kind.

In the late 60’s, during a time of civil unrest, Ellis Haizlip decided that he wanted to put together something that spoke to and for the Black community. He knew that Black people needed to see themselves on television doing more than being beaten and arrested by the police. He wanted to spread the Black culture, the music, dance, song and most importantly the love. And so out of that idea was born Soul!, a taped variety show that would highlight only Black people and the work that was being done by those that were for the cause.

Now over 5 decades later, Ellis’s niece Melissa Haizlip brings audiences an in depth view of her uncle, his brilliance and the show that would forever change how Black people could be presented to the nation in real time. He knew that his show could be a comfort and a place to look for inspiration if it was done right. And he was so committed to doing it right, Ellis even ended up hosting the show despite never wanting to be on camera. He was dedicated to making Soul! feel like coming home after a hard day of being Black in a white world.

From its very first episode the last one, Soul! was revolutionary. It never pulled any of its punches, it let Black people express themselves as freely and as widely as they wanted. The concept of a space where Black people could gather to celebrate art, music, dance and song while learning as well gained traction fast and soon enough everyone was clamoring for a guest spot. From Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells to Stevie Wonder, The Delfonics, Ashford and Simpson, Al Greene and Gladys Knight; they all appeared on the show early in their careers. For many, Ellis gave them their first tv gig and was an essential part of the foundation that helped build them up. But he didn’t just stop at the music side of things, Ellis also loved poetry. It is because of him that poetry on tv has reached the extend it has today. Before Soul! it was nearly impossible to find Black poetry on screen, it just wasn’t done. However once Soul! began, it became expected to see a Black poet be given the spotlight. And the poetry that was read on air was constantly life changing.

The dedication to creating what Ellis referred to as a “Black love fest” pulled Black talent and creativity from all over. It was on Soul! that the famous James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni interview happen, two hours of nothing but them sitting having a conversation. It was simple, but revolutionary. Ellis even sat down with notoriously homophobic Muslim leader Louis Farraken, though Haizlip himself was an openly gay man. He asked the Muslims leader strategic, in-depth questions, let him express himself without interruption and even shook the man’s hand at the end of the interview. Ellis truly believed that all Black voices had some kind of value.

Of course, nothing as good for the culture as Soul! was could ever be allowed to last. Not in today’s climate and not in the climate of the 60’s and 70’s. It struck nerves too close to white people in power, especially President Nixon. Who at the time was doing everything in his power to control the media. Knowing that he could not pressure Soul! off the air directly, he instead came down hard on the studios and forced budget cuts that left Black television out to dry. In March 1973, Soul! aired its final episode and even though his friends wanted him to fight for the show Ellis Haizlip closed it with dignity and grace. Whether he knew the lasting impact the show would have or not, Ellis was content with the work it had done and the people it reached. And he never stopped doing everything he could to bring Black culture to the forefront.

The best thing about Mr. Soul! isn’t the way it pulls you in and changes your perspective on what variety/late night shows could be, though that is a huge plus; the best thing about this documentary is the way it reaffirms the quietly kept fact that Black culture is the blueprint. There is no denying it, what Black people create others either rush to replicate or go to extreme lengths to destroy. The president of the United States felt so threatened by a television show that he put in extra time to make sure it was taken off the air. If that’s not power then I don’t know what is. Black culture is powerful and no one seemed to understand that more than Ellis Haizlip.

Mr. Soul! is currently virtually streaming. Check out mrsoulmovie.com to find a stream!

10/10

-Danyi

P.S. if you can, help a sis out and buy me dinner. Cashapp: $danyi13 any and everything is appreciated.

Movie Reviews · reviews · Uncategorized

Sorry To Bother You- The Movie We Need To Talk About

I like weird things. Weird movies, weird shows, weird books and even weird clothes. If it’s different, to me, I’m more than likely going to at least give it a chance. There are some things that get a little too weird for me but more often than not I back things that others side-eyed. I used to think being called weird was an insult, I used to think that I needed to hide my nerdiness and never talk about what I liked in a group of people. Now though, in my mid 20’s, being weird is the next cool trend and people are clamoring over themselves to try and earn the crown of “Most Weird”. I’ve watched people flock to shows and movies, claiming them to be the outstanding kind of weird. Most of them aren’t but it’s interesting to watch people suddenly want to be weird. There is something good that has come out of this trend though. Black people are finally getting to showcase our weirdness and we’re getting to be loud and proud while we do it. And it’s a beautiful thing.

When I was in college, a classmate introduced me to a band called The Coup. Their frontman, Boots Riley, had a different way about rapping that really spoke to me. The Coup had just realized their newest album “Sorry To Bother You” when they were brought to my attention. And I played the album out over late night study sessions and bus rides to campus. As time passed though the album was shifted from my regular rotation to being occasionally played and finally just being something that would play in the background when I shuffled all songs on my phone. So imagine my surprise when, years later, it’s announced that Boots Riley had written and directed a film titled “Sorry To Bother You”. I freaked out. Then I saw the trailer and freaked out again. From the trailer alone I could tell that this movie was going to be my kind of weird.

Sorry To Bother You tells the story of Cassius Green, a young man who’s slowly sinking in an “alt reality” where the world relies on capitalism to keep it afloat. He and his girlfriend Detroit, whose art is as stunning as she is, live in his uncle’s garage. Detroit works as a sign twirler while Cassius has just been hired as a telemarketer for RegalView. They may be poor but they’re happy. And they’re trying their best to keep away from the rapidly growing trend known as “Worry Free Homes”, a place where people work 14 hours a day and are packed together like sardines. But it’s marketed as a happy, almost retreat, like community where no one has worry about debt ever again. At RegalView, the goal is to call as many people as you can and sell encyclopedias to them. The more you sell, the more you’re paid. However, Cassius quickly learns that more often than not, the clients are going to hang up on him. And with this job being a commissions only one, his paychecks aren’t going to be as much as he wants them to be if they’re anything at all.

Eventually, an older black man named Langston takes pity on Cassius and tells him that if he wants to make any money he’ll have to start using his white voice. Cassius dismisses this at first, a push back against conforming to the man. However, Langston explains that what we consider a “white voice” isn’t really about the person being white. It’s about sounding like you’ve got everything under control, you have no worries and you’re just as successful as the person you’re talking to. And after he takes a call and demonstrates, Cassius realizes that he just might be onto something.

Just when Cassius is starting to get the hang of being a telemarketer that actually makes sales, he is pulled into a completely opposite direction when his friends on the call floor decide they’ve had enough. Led by the resilient and persistent Squeeze, the workers stage a protest during peak call times. They want to be paid for the work they do and not just used like mules to keep the company going. Both Detroit and Cassius’s best friend Sal are down to demand change but Cassius himself is hesitant because he knows that the bosses upstairs are watching him. He needs to be promoted to Power Caller, to keep his uncle from losing his house but he also doesn’t want to go against his friends and girlfriend.

When he is promoted, Cassius is given a taste of what life is like when people are actually paid for the work they do. He gets to see what it’s like to not have to struggle to live. But he also discovers what prices he must pay for this life, what immoral things he has to turn a blind eye to and the kind of person he has to become if he wants to do well in this new world. And it’s not until Cassius is invited to the owner of the company, Steve Lift’s annual party does he realize that maybe he’s working for truly evil people.

For the sake of spoilers, I won’t go much further into detail about what happens in the movie. However, I do want to look at some of the things that I took away from this movie and why I think it’s really important for everyone to see it.

To me, Sorry To Bother You, is one of the most profound movies I’ve ever seen. Its stance on capitalism is loud and clear, with the Worry Free Homes and the RegalView job being commission only instead of by the hour. The movie gives us a clear picture of what we will be like as a society soon. Some would even say we’re already there and STBY is just showing us how everything will play out. The Worry Free Homes are a glorified version of prisons and they are presented in a way that makes them seem far less toxic than they are. On the TV, the people who in the Homes are happy to be there. Happy to be doing the work and happy to literally be worry free. But because of their presentation, people don’t question the ethics. There’s a resistance, of course, a group named Left Eye spends a majority of their time defacing Worry Free adds and aiding protestors when they hold their rallies. However, society as a whole doesn’t care and isn’t outraged enough for anything to be done. So Worry Free Homes continue to be an okay thing. I wouldn’t call this much of stretch from our world today. We rely heavily on public outrage for things to get done and more often than not if you want something changed you’re more likely to be successful if you take the issue to Twitter than you are if you take it to Congress or the Government. Even when Cassius finally thinks he’s found a way to take down Worry Free and by extension of them RegalView, he learns that people only care if you have an answer to the problem. No one wants to help solve problems that don’t affect them directly.

Another theme that Sorry To Bother You focuses on is the idea that black people are often seen as mules. We are worked harder and longer than most and often the work ends up not mattering because the goal post continues to be moved or isn’t even for us to score goals in the first place. What I mean by this is, at first Cassius wanted to be promoted just so he could save his uncle’s home and not have to struggle anymore. That’s all he really wanted. When the higher-ups suddenly took an interest in him, he was moved up and looked at as someone who could build a bridge between two worlds. He was moved up because he’s a black man who is going against what other black people and people of color are doing. It did not escape me that Cassius and his boss Mr. Blank were the only black Power Callers. They were the “we’re clearly diverse” hill that RegalView would die on in case they ever needed to defend themselves for what they were doing. Cassius is good at being a telemarketer but it wasn’t just his skills that got him an invite to Steve Lift’s party, a familiar setting that black people in the workforce often find themselves in.

There are little things scattered throughout the movie that I enjoyed and also show us just how ridiculous but alarming things have become. From the most popular show on the air being about people beating each other up to the elaborate code that a Power Callers have to us in their elevator and even Cassius’s broke down bucket car. They may seem like an exaggeration but when you stop and think about it, they really aren’t. Society as a whole has changed into something that is quickly becoming toxic and if we continue to ignore it, we’ll only get worse.

It’s important that people see this movie because not only is it massively entertaining, it’s a movie that has something to say. It may say it weirdly and it may make a lot of people extremely uncomfortable but the message STBY is trying to get out is one we all need to hear. I’ve seen the movie three times now and each time the audience reactions are different. Everyone takes it differently, I was in one show where a person got up and left while at another everyone clapped when the credits rolled. It’s bringing up things that society wants us to ignore and just be okay with, and Sorry To Bother You is here to say fuck that. We need to pay more attention to what is happening and stop hiding behind good presentation and promises of a better life. Because the “better life” has a rule printed in the finest of fonts that it can only be given to a few.

I only have one worry about Sorry To Bother You, and that is, that the “shocking” visual revelation in the third act will overpower the messages the movie conveyed. I fear that people only take away from the movie the end result and not how the movie got to that end in the first place. The revelation is very shocking, don’t get me wrong but what’s even more shocking is the people only want to talk about that. It’s being called this years’ “Get Out” and that alone tells me that many people missed the memo. They can’t comprehend that this movie is nothing like Get Out, but because both films deal with race they think the two must be considered the same. Get Out was one thing, Sorry To Bother You is something completely different. They are not mutually exclusive. We can praise STBY without comparing it to any other film because honestly there is no other film like it. Boots Riley has created a space where weirdness can have a home but the weirdness isn’t exempt from real life problems. And I think that’s wonderful.

The cast makes the movie all the better. Lakeith Stanfield is quickly becoming the actor to watch and his embodiment of Cassius Green is fantastic. Tessa Thompson has us all falling in love with her soft-spoken but highly radical Detroit. While Steven Yeun gives Squeeze a ton of heart and makes you want to join the resistance just to make him proud. Armie Hammer and Omari Hardwick play the roles of the villains beautifully. Hammer’s Steve Lift is absolutely insane but his presentation and constant cheery attitude lets him get away with pretty much everything. While Hardwick’s Mr. Blank was one of my favorite things about the movie, he’s a villain in the sense that we don’t know much about him but his support of Steve Lift tells us he’s in this for himself. I only wish we could have gotten to see more of Cassius’s uncle Surge because I love Terry Crews.

I recommend that everyone see this movie. Especially in a theater with others so that you can have this transformative experience with other people. I hope that it’s successful and Boots Riley is able to make more films, he’s clearly got a lot to say about things we need hear. Sorry To Bother You isn’t ahead of its time, rather it’s arrived right when we need it.

-Danyi