Monday, November 4, 2013

Soul TV, Black Power & African American Media Culture of the 1970s

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a renaissance in television programming by and for black people in the United States. Largely because of electric social changes like the Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation, and Gay Liberation Movements and the formation of the Black Panther Party, producers in the television industry finally began to understand that there would be an audience for programming from and about different facets of the black community. 

On Wednesday, November 13, from 5-7 p.m., CSW, in co-sponsorship with UCLA’s Department of Film, Television, & Digital Media, The Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, and Elevate will host an event titled “Soul TV, Black Power, and African American Media Culture of the 1970s,” which will examine the history of this television renaissance, and assess what today’s artists, activists, and audiences can learn from the past. 

In particular, the event will focus on public affairs series including SOUL!, a legendary talk show/celebration of black culture and politics founded and hosted by Ellis Haizlip; Soul Train, the iconic music and dance series; and Inside Bedford Stuyvesant, a news series chronicling cultural, social, and political happenings in the town in Brooklyn, NY.

The event will include a panel discussion and screening featuring Melissa Haizlip, filmmaker and producer of the documentary Mr. SOUL!: Ellis Haizlip and the Birth of Black Power TV; Devorah Heitner, scholar and author of Black Power TV (Duke University Press, 2013); and Ericka Blount Danois, journalist and author of Love, Peace, and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show “Soul Train”: Classic Moments. Allyson Field, a professor in UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies program, will moderate.  

The authors will discuss the works that they’ve historicized, and introduce clips from Haizlip’s documentary.  In addition, Mark Quigley, Manager of The UCLA Film & Television Archive Research and Study Center, will screen rare footage of Doin’ it at the Storefront, a TV program that appeared on KCET in Los Angeles. I had the opportunity to discuss this very rich period of media history, and the people and programming that allowed it to happen, with Melissa Haizlip, Devorah Heitner, and Ericka Blount Danois. 











The TV shows featured in the “Soul TV” event were notable for prominently featuring women and social and political issues related to women both in front of and behind the camera.  Heitner and Haizlip emphasized the foregrounding of women on SOUL!

Devorah Heitner
 “The influence of poets and artists in that era was essential,” says Heitner. “In the black public sphere artists were important, and their perspectives were valued, in ways that they aren’t so much today.  There are still artists doing important work, but at that time people were looking at poetry and other aspects of the black arts movement as very central.  So somebody like Nikki Giovanni co-hosting SOUL! was an amazing opportunity.  She had a two-hour episode with James Baldwin in which she and Baldwin discussed gender and sexuality in ways that would blow your mind.  They were talking about sexuality and marriage, the ways in which women were demonized, and homosexuality, which were all very taboo topics.  Women performing on the show included poets like Sonia Sanchez.  They had a lot to say about the ways in which black women were demonized.  There’s a real critique of the ways in which black women were being demonized by the press and popular culture, and sometimes black men, but mostly through the racist eyes of white policy makers.”

SOUL! reinforced the Women’s Movement on a local and national level by featuring female guest hosts and entire episodes honoring black women,” says Haizlip. “The prominence given to women on the SOUL! show is an important theme to explore, given that the Black Power Movement has often been framed as sexist and homophobic.” 

Other women who gave spoken word performances and participated in discussions on SOUL! included Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara, Anna Maria Horsford, Novella Nelson, Mari Evans, S. Pearl Sharp, Cicely Tyson, and others. 

“Ellis Haizlip opened doors for women by presenting and championing multicultural themes within the Black community,” says Haizlip.

Melissa Haizlip
Haizlip also points out that Ellis Haizlip (her uncle) created the first opportunity for an African American woman to be associate producer on public television, a job occupied by Alice LaBrie (formerly Alice Hill Jackson, the late Hal Jackson’s first wife).  Anna Maria Horsford later became an associate producer on the show.  The series’ staff also included many women, such as Leslie Demus, Leslie Greene, and Sherry Santifer, among others. 

While Soul Train is known for launching hundreds of women performers to fame, Blount Danois illuminates the fact that, like Ellis Haizlip, Soul Train creator Don Cornelius was extraordinarily progressive in his inclusion of women producers.


Don Cornelius
“That’s what was unique about Soul Train as a production,” she says. “Because Don [Cornelius] owned the show, he was able to employ a variety of people, black and white, the best of the people in the industry, so women were often in power positions. People like Aida Chapman.  She was a production person, and in the early ‘70s that was pretty unusual. She was his right hand woman. And people like Pamela Brown, who was in charge of all the dancers.  Aida was a Puerto Rican woman from Harlem, and Pamela was a black woman from Los Angeles. They’re two people who come to mind right away, but there were plenty of others who were making decisions in the office.”

They included Cheryl Song, who ended up dancing in music videos by Michael Jackson and Rick James.  Cornelius also created The Lady of Soul Awards when he became cognizant that, at the Soul Train Awards (which he founded to create recognition for black artists), women were too often overlooked. 

Inside Bedford Stuyvesant
Roxy Roker, an important film and television actress (well known for her role as Helen Willis on The Jeffersons), broke ground as the host of Inside Bedford Stuyvesant“You can see her experimentations with wearing an afro and changing her physical appearance in coordination with the times,” says Heitner. “It is an interesting statement because she came from a civil rights background and Howard University, so her take on the black power era is very interesting to watch.”

The speakers participating in the “Soul TV” event each stated that they felt it important to preserve the histories of these television shows at this moment because they were fans of the various series, and because they felt that the programs’ rich stories risked getting lost in the passage of time. Blount Danois first thought about doing in-depth research on Soul Train while writing articles about the series, along with SOUL!, for various publications.

“I found out that Ellis Haizlip and Don Cornelius were two of the only black television hosts who operated simultaneously on these shows that were primarily black oriented music [and culture] programs,” she says. “They were operating at the same time, which was really unusual…And in my research I just kept finding out more and more about the history of Soul Train and the black radio that Don had come out of, particularly WVON.”

Ericka Blount Danois
Blount Danois was particularly fascinated by Cornelius’ and WVON’s connection to the Civil Rights Movement, and Soul Train’s ongoing and widespread impact: “It’s just an amazing history: the show, the artists, and the dancers, some of whom I found had really gone on to bigger things. Some of the dancers had choreographed for Mick Jagger. One of them had danced for the Queen of England alongside Nureyev.  They’d really made names for themselves, and I realized how much Soul Train had made an impact on culture at large, not just in America but globally.  It’s the longest syndicated series in history.  I just wanted to find out why that was.  Why was it as impactful as it was, as popular as it was?”



Ellis Haizlip
“I am compelled to document this story [about the TV series SOUL!] for two reasons,” says Haizlip, “to create a living archive anticipating the imminent departure of many of the mature master makers of African American culture; and to make that historical journey current and relevant to the younger generation.  Now is the time to bring into the spotlight this important chapter in the history of black America, and illuminate the enormous impact SOUL! continues to have to this day.  SOUL! the series was a powerful tool for creating social change, by prompting diversity in media.  At a time of deep racial turmoil, Haizlip gave radical voice to the struggles and successes of the black experience.  People were hungry to see their own humanity represented on television.  That still remains true today—the need to tell our own stories, and the importance of telling the truth.  It’s time to tell Ellis Haizlip’s story and take SOUL! out of the vault.”

“I got very intrigued with these African American public affairs shows, and I started just looking at the shows and realized that this was a really important story,” says Heitner. “I started contacting people who worked on the shows, and they were really interested to talk about the shows and tell their stories.  I feel so privileged to be able to write about the shows, and to have been able to include some of the voices of some people who recently passed away in this history.  It was just a really incredible story, and I realized I had to write it soon because the archive was disappearing, and some of the people involved were getting older.  I thought that I needed to write this book right now, so I just went for it.”

Heitner argues that the series were partly so influential because they came on during a historical moment when, because of limited options, many television shows had the opportunity to reach a large variety of people. This industrial moment gave shows like SOUL!, Soul Train, and Inside Bedford Stuyvesant, which were informed by the progressive activist organizations of the time, and indeed shared many of their goals, unique power.

“I think we’re in a really different period in terms of media activism,” says Heitner. “Media is in such a big space right now.  It’s hard for media to be as influential as these programs were, because there were fewer outlets at the time.  So it was really interesting for me to think about how the rise of television was in communication with the rise of black power, and the ways in which black discourse was able to reach a wide and diverse audience because of that communication.”

Television’s wide reach allowed the series to give black audiences an opportunity to see hugely diverse and empowering representations of their community, while also raising white people’s consciousness of the social and political concerns with which they grappled.

“The shows were really aimed at black audiences,” says Heitner, “but a lot of other people also watched the shows and learned. I write in the book [Black Power TV] about the white viewers who wrote letters, saying things like ‘the program really affected me and made me understand what people were so upset about.’  A huge question in the 1960s, among a certain demographic of white people, was ‘Why are black people so angry, what are people so mad about, after all of the progress that’s taken place?’ These shows really helped people understand black issues in a more nuanced way.  Watching civil rights footage or footage of riots in the news made them feel alienated, and these programs were really helpful in helping humanize communities that they had never entered because of segregation.”

In an age of satellite cable TV, the internet, and other new media, in which popular culture is usually less informed by progressive politics, it is rare for any media program to have such influence. However, Haizlip points out that, because of the huge variety of current media platforms, SOUL! and other TV series of its ilk have as much to teach us as ever.

“When SOUL! debuted in September 1968, Ellis Haizlip and his team used the ‘social media’ of the time: the Black press, radio stations, church bulletins, flyers in the community, and of course good old fashioned word of mouth to get their message across,” says Haizlip. “We have much to learn from the grassroots community techniques from forty years ago. Ellis Haizlip was what we could call today a ‘cultural influencer,’ using the relatively new platform of broadcast television.”

At The SOUL Summit!, a recent conference in New York City devoted to celebrating and examining the legacies of Ellis Haizlip and SOUL! (which convened at the Channel Thirteen studios where the program originally filmed), current digital media producers discussed the importance of SOUL!, and the people, industrial structures, and cultures that produced it, on a panel called “The New Frontier: SOUL! in the Digital Age.”

“The last panel of 'Afro-futurists' launched a conversation on the challenges facing today’s black independent documentary makers and content creators,” says Haizlip. “Aina Abiodun (StoryCode), Monifa Bandele (MomsRising.org), Nicole Eley-Carr (PBS Black Culture Connection), Thomas Allen Harris (Digital Diaspora Family Reunion-DDFR.tv), and Jennifer MacArthur (Borderline Media) discussed the importance of revisiting SOUL! in the digital space.  Content creators explored how we still struggle with movement building, and yet the power of storytelling remains profound.  Some of the challenges facing Ellis Haizlip persist today for both emerging and established cross-platform storytellers: How do we make content committed to black history and culture, while keeping it relevant? How can independents with limited resources-and access to resources-compete in this rapidly changing environment? What are some strategies and sustainable models, and what’s the next big NEXT?... The panel’s moderator, National Black Programming Consortium/BlackPublicMedia.org Executive Director Jacquie Jones, noted that SOUL! had ‘a real intentionality about it.’ She led the panel to discuss how do you build around an idea, while growing the broader community.”

Haizlip, Heitner, and Blount Danois will come together for this event because they are all highly invested in and engaged with the “Soul TV” programs of this period.  Indeed, they’ve all worked together on producing and/or promoting each other’s work.  However, their approaches to the material are somewhat different. Haizlip has approached the subject as a filmmaker, Blount as a journalist and popular writer, and Heitner and Field as scholars (although I would argue that all of their works are scholarly texts with popular appeal).  The event “Soul TV, Black Power, and African American Culture of the 1970s” offers a rare opportunity for four people with somewhat different perspectives and professional approaches to publicly discuss these topics.

“I think that bringing these different viewpoints together appeals to a wide variety of people,” says Blount Danois. “But also the different perspectives: The historical perspective, and putting the shows into context, is something that academics do. Journalists have to appeal to a mass media crowd.  They’re able to put into laymen’s terms whatever the context of the story is, so that the wide variety of people can understand it.  Filmmakers appeal to storytelling techniques and telling the story, for people who enjoy a good story.  So, I think that all of those people together just make a dynamic panel, appealing to a wide variety of people.”

“Media producers and commentators are inexorably linked as we explore the various new forms of storytelling across traditional platforms and the newest models in transmedia and interactive documentaries,” says Haizlip. “The value in bringing us together lies in being part of the revolution-the synergy is part of the way we communicate as we learn to maximize media to inspire social impact.”


-- Ben Raphael Sher

Ben Sher is a graduate student in the Cinema and Media Studies Program at UCLA and an editorial assistant and graduate student researcher at CSW.

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“Soul TV, Black Power & African American Media Culture of the 1970s” will take place Wednesday, November 13. 5-7 PM at 1422 Melnitz Hall. For more info, visit http://www.csw.ucla.edu/events/black-power-television-and-culture-of-the-1970s.

For more information about the documentary Mr. SOUL!: Ellis Haizlip and the Birth of Black Power TV, visit www.mrsoulmovie.com.

For more information about SOUL!, and to watch full episodes of the series, visit: http://www.thirteen.org/soul/#.UnhDPPmkowt

For more information about Black Power TV by Devorah Heitner, visit: www.blackpowertv.com.

For more information about Love, Peace, and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show “Soul Train”: Classic Moments by Ericka Blount Danois, visit www.erickablount.com.

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