I am proud to announce that two documentaries which I champion (and executive produce) are nominees at the 5th annual Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. Melissa Haizlip’s “Mr. Soul!,” an illuminating profile of the groundbreaking television show hosted by the director’s uncle, Ellis Haizlip, received five nominations including Best Documentary Feature, Best First Documentary Feature, Best Archival Documentary, Best Historical/Biographical Documentary and Best Narration (Blair Underwood narrating the writing of Ellis Haizlip). Mary Mazzio’s “A Most Beautiful Thing,” a stunning film about the first African American high school rowing team in the United States, was nominated in the category of Best Sports Documentary. It is narrated by Common, and Dwayne Wade and Grant Hill are also executive producers. You can find the full list of nominees here, and the winners will be announced on November 16th.
“Mr. Soul!” chronicles the legacy of “SOUL!” the public television variety show produced and hosted by Ellis Haizlip that turned a spotlight on the Black Arts Movement. During a time period when African-Americans were not routinely featured prominently on television except in negative stereotypes, this program blazed new trails for representation during its run from 1968 through 1973. In his four-star review of the film published on this site, our critic Glenn Kenny wrote that “the clips from the show—and seriously, can someone assemble the entire series and get it on streaming, or physical media somehow—reveal it as a phantasmagoria of Black excellence.”
The film’s director, Melissa Haizlip, is a dynamic emerging filmmaker who has earned many accolades for her film, including the Best Music Documentary at the IDA Documentary Awards, the Best Feature Documentary at the Pan African Film & Arts Festival, the Audience Award for Best Feature at the AFI DOCS Film Festival in Washington, D.C., the Audience Award at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, the Meta Award at the Dallas Videofest/Docufest and made a splash at the BFI London Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival.
“A Most Beautiful Thing” tells the story of young men, some who were former gang members from the West Side of Chicago, who grudgingly got together to form a sports team that had never been formed before, a Black rowing team. Initially they didn’t get the support of their own student body because they weren’t playing the popular sports like basketball or football, but they perservered. And incredibly, it also shows these same former gang members teaching members of the Chicago Police Department how to row in partnership with them. The film has become even more topical in light of the social unrest around the relationship between the police and Black communities. But that’s only part of the story. They reached out to an Olympic rowing coach for lessons when they put the team back together years later. One of the most beautiful parts of the film is watching the men utilize all of their skills as life lessons in making decisions to change the trajectory of their lives and to set a new path for intergenerational hope for their children.
Director Mary Mazzio found support among lawmakers in Congress where she proposed that poverty should be treated as a health crisis and that systemic racism can be addressed at its roots by redressing structural inequities. “A Most Beautiful Thing” is a film about the ups and downs of life in the city. About the hopes and dreams of its inhabitants. About addiction and recovery, about family and community. And about a brighter path being forged from sheer hard work and discipline. In his SXSW review of the film, RogerEbert.com managing editor Brian Tallerico wrote, “Mazzio’s approach reminded me of Steve James, another filmmaker whose undeniable empathy comes through in every frame.”
For more information, visit the official sites of “Mr. Soul!” and “A Most Beautiful Thing.”