Morgan Freeman Presents Peabody Award to Documentary Film ‘Mr. Soul!’ (Exclusive)

In presenting a Peabody Award to Mr. Soul!, the acclaimed documentary about the 1968-73 TV series Soul!, actor Morgan Freeman touched on the reasons the original series was so ground-breaking.

“During its five-year run, it was a celebration of the majesty, the confidence and the revolutionary force of Black artists and intellectuals, writers and performers,” Freeman said, in a virtual presentation. “It was uncompromisingly and unapologetically Black. And this gem of a show gets the spotlight it deserves in Melissa Haizlip’s documentary, Mr. Soul! Her film offers an enviable range of Black creative expression and stresses how the original show served as a soundtrack of Black Americans at their most radical.”

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Haizlip, the documentary’s producer, writer and director, dedicated the award to her uncle, Ellis Haizlip, who was the original show’s creator, producer and host.

“Ellis Haizlip was an extraordinary producer, always pushing the culture forward with light and love and we wanted to do the same thing with this film,” she said, in a virtual acceptance. “…Soul! is a love letter to Black culture, to Black love, to Black joy and to Black lives. Now more than ever, we need a voice like Ellis Haizlip to help restore the soul of a nation.”

Haizlip also thanked three of her executive producers – producer and director Stan Lathan, who took over as director of the series in 1970; attorney Chaz Ebert and actor Blair Underwood.

Underwood provided the voice of Ellis Haizlip, reading from interviews, news articles, correspondence and journal entries. Ellis Haizlip died of cancer in 1991, at age 61.

Soul! premiered on WNDT (later known as WNET), the NET and PBS outlet in New York, on Sept. 12, 1968. That was three years before Don Cornelius’ Soul Train launched in syndication (on Oct. 2, 1971). While both shows presented top Black music acts, Soul! also presented figures from the worlds of poetry, literature and the Black Arts Movement.

Non-musicians who appeared on the program included heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, minister-turned-politician Jesse Jackson, actor Sidney Poitier, and activist Kathleen Cleaver, wife of Eldridge Cleaver, an early leader of the Black Panther Party.

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The premier broadcast of Soul! featured singer Barbara Acklin, Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles, actress-singer Novella Nelson, Billy Taylor, The Vibrations, gospel musician Pearl Williams Jones, and comedian Irwin C. Watson.

The original co-hosts on that premier show were Alvin Poussaint, the noted Harvard psychologist, and educator Loretta Long, who one year later assumed the role of Susan Robinson on Sesame Street. Ellis Haizlip replaced Poussaint as co-host on Oct. 24, 1968. Haizlip became the show’s sole host on Dec. 5, 1968. (Poet Nikki Giovanni was also a frequent host.)

While the show aired locally when it started, it soon spread across the country. By 1970, it was carried by 72 public television stations. The show ran through March 7, 1973.

The doc includes a clip of Ellis Haizlip speaking about the show he created. In that clip, he says, “But because I hadn’t seen enough images of myself, I watched. Lo-and-behold, I saw Wilson Pickett, The Last Poets, was introduced to Barbara Ann Teer, Billy Preston, Stevie Wonder, Nikki Giovanni, Al Green; experienced Bill Withers and Amiri Baraka. There exists, as far as I know, no TV program that deals with my culture so completely, so freely and so beautifully. There is no alternative to soul.”

The documentary includes archival footage from the series, including interviews with Baraka, Poitier, Ali, Harry Belafonte and James Baldwin, among others, as well as performances from such artists as Green, Wonder, LaBelle, The Last Poets, Ashford and Simpson, and Earth, Wind and Fire.

Four-time Grammy winner Robert Glasper provided the music for the doc. He and Lalah Hathaway co-wrote and performed the end title song, “Show Me Your Soul.” Muhammad Ayers and Melissa Haizlip were also co-writers of the song.

Mr. Soul! premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 22, 2018. The film was released in limited theaters and virtual cinemas on Aug. 28, 2020. The doc premiered on PBS on Feb. 22, 2021 and on HBO Max on Aug. 1, 2021.

The film was co-produced by Doug Blush and co-directed by Sam Pollard. Other executive producers, not already named, were record executive Ron Gillyard, producer Rishi Rajani, producer Stephanie T. Rance and screenwriter, producer and actress Lena Waithe.

The 30 winners of the 82nd annual Peabody Awards will be named across major social media channels from Monday (June 6) through Thursday June 9 between 9:00 a.m. PT -10:30 a.m. PT on the following platforms:

Twitter:            @PeabodyAwards

Instagram:       @PeabodyAwards

Facebook:        Peabody Awards

Website:          https://peabodyawards.com/

Hashtags:         #PeabodyAwards #StoriesThatMatter

Peabody Awards are presented for television, podcast/radio, and immersive and interactive media in the categories of entertainment, documentary, news, podcast/radio, arts, children’s and youth, and public service. Winners are chosen each year by a diverse board of jurors through unanimous vote. According to a mission statement: “The Peabody Awards shine a light on stories that matter and are a testament to the power of art and reportage in the push for truth, social justice, and equity.”

The Peabody Awards were founded in 1940 at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

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