In the years following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination as the Civil Rights Movement began to fray and crack, the Black Power movement arose, and Ellis Haizlip’s PBS series SOUL! gave black artists, poets, musicians, dancers, creators and activists a platform to tell their stories.
SOUL! debuted on September 12, 1968, with Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles as its first musical guest. The show aired for five years before it was stamped out in the wake of President Richard Nixon’s suppression of the media. But for those five years, what Haizlip gave black people was glorious.
With their new documentary Mr. SOUL!, co-directors Melissa Haizlip and Sam Pollard celebrate Mr. Haizlip, an enigmatic and profound man who dedicated his life to honoring black people. To bring Mr. SOUL! to life, Haizlip and Pollard turned to actor Blair Underwood to narrate the film and 13th cinematographer Hans Charles to create the images. Amid the Tribeca Film Festival, I sat down to chat with Charles about Mr. SOUL!, black images and why he embraces being labeled a black cinematographer.
Charles’ journey into film began with a simple curiosity. “I think I just realized that there was a lot of action happening around the camera,” he reflected. “There’s just so much energy around it, that it felt like a place where you always would get a chance to work. That felt different from those people who wanted to be writers or directors. There is a certain energy and a certain sense of collaboration that occurs around the camera. That visual observation made an impression on me. I started as a film loader. I interned for Brad on a film called Mo. Then I became a second assistant on Mississippi Damned. Brad was teaching for one semester at Howard , and I was probably the worst cinematography student; I really didn’t understand the technical concepts. But I would always be the first student there and the last student to leave. Toward the end of the semester, he asked two of us to be interns on a commercial he was doing. He asked his best student, and he asked me — the most enthusiastic student. I was the one who showed up the next day.”
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