Where Are They Now: Q & A with Melissa Haizlip

We don’t ask our grantees to report back after funding their projects, but that doesn’t mean we’re not curious about what happened after they got the money.

Melissa Haizlip is the director of award-winning documentary Mr. Soul! and an Awesome Without Borders grantee. We followed up with her four years after she received her AWB grant in 2016. This interview was conducted in November 2020 and has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

O: How has your project evolved since we gave you your grant?

M: Imagine taking an idea, trying to figure out how to fund that idea, and turn it into a film. [The undertaking] was important because Mr. Soul! is about a groundbreaking television show called SOUL! that happened between 1968 and 1973, and the show itself was funded initially by nonprofit grants and organizations – we wanted to keep that same spirit in making the film. It actually took us 10 years to complete the film!

As a real independent filmmaker, you rely on finding organizations that you can connect with, see what you’re doing and want to support you. In my case, as a Black woman director, that’s really special. As we are now on the eve of a racial reckoning in our country, there’s more interest to stories like mine that tie Black history of our past to Black history today. Black history is really now, but Black history is American history. This story of SOUL! is a story of our people, the story of diversity and inclusion, and those are hot-button topics even now as the nation is coming to grips with understanding how far we have yet to go in the search for fairness, allyship, equal justice, and social justice.

Now that it’s completed, we did something very unique with it this summer. While the pandemic was happening and the social revolution was upon us, we decided to release the film in a new way. We did not have a distributor at the time, and we released it in the virtual cinema! What was different about that is we were partnering with nonprofit organizations, arthouse cinemas and cultural institutions to make the film visible. We used it as an opportunity to support them at the same time. When an audience member wanted to see the film, they could go on the list of over 90 cinema partners across the nation and click on a theater that they wanted to support, a theater that maybe had their doors closed for the pandemic. It was a really unique way to support the local organization in your neighborhood while supporting an independent Black woman filmmaker.

We wanted to offer this film which is very uplifting and encouraging as we felt that this would be the perfect moment for this film to be a source of healing and pride. That’s why we decided to release it this summer.

O: Can you tell me about the reactions you’ve received from people who have already seen the film.

M: People have responded to Mr. Soul! in a very personal, very visceral way. It’s so surprising for the people who maybe didn’t know about SOUL!. SOUL! was a television show shot right here in New York City but after the Public Broadcasting Act happened and created the Public Broadcast System, it created a system of stations across the country and that was a way of getting this message out. At a time when Black folks really had to define themselves on this American landscape in a post Jim Crow, post-Civil Rights era, a new Blackness was really important and happening nationwide.

Cut to fifty years later, many people don’t know about the show. [They say,] How did we not know about this?! It was like this magical Black unicorn! People respond one of two ways: They’re either really excited that SOUL! is back, or This is impossible, this is the greatest show I’ve never heard of. Between the two responses, you still get the same thing, which is a real appreciation [for the film]. We’ve gotten so many heartfelt messages and wonderful reviews. I think what’s different about our film is that it’s an unapologetically Black perspective but at the same time it’s universal. Anyone can relate, it’s not just a “Black film”. Black history is American history, and we really need these stories, and need them told by our people. We also have a Black queer hero at the front of the story which brings a whole new scope of interest and importance.

O: What made you go, I need to make this documentary?

M: It’s harder to help people understand something is important if they’ve never heard of it. And it was hard to resurrect something and ask people to value it and realize how special it was in the beginning. It’s about legacy-keeping, but also it’s stories like this that are really precious because it reminds Black people of our greatness. And I think that’s something we really need right now given these challenging moments.

Black seeds keep on growing, and I’d like to think that Ellis Haizlip knew that as the producer and host of this show. He knew the value of Black culture; the beauty, the variety, the complexity…and [he knew] if he could just provide visibility for that, it would be so much more meaningful. I feel the same way even fifty years later, as the vessel for the film, his story, and our story collectively.

O: What surprised you most in making this film?

M: One thing that surprised me was how long it took! It was never supposed to take ten years, but when you have a long game and you’re determined to get something done, you’ll stop at nothing. One of the hardest things was funding the film and finding the right funders to fund the film in a timely way so we could keep shooting, researching, interviewing, and editing.

I’m surprised it took this long but I’m really glad that this moment is when it’s happening.

What also surprised me is how immediate the response was to that time period for those who lived it. When we were interviewing people for the film and I was trying to create a visceral experience, I never knew who was going to remember what and whether it was going to feel urgent. There’s always the worry that when you’re talking about something from a long time ago, it’s not going to resonate. What really surprised me was that everyone was so invested, it felt like it was yesterday! I could get the emotion from the people telling these stories, and you could see what an impact it had on their lives at the time, and how they still hold that in their hearts.