“Soul of a Nation” arrives Tuesday on ABC, eluding all the usual categories.
It’s “a journey through Black storytelling,” Marie Nelson, creator of the six-week series, told the Television Critics Association.
It’s also “sort of a news variety show,” said producer Robe Imbriano. It can have Common (shown herein a previous performance) one moment and a look at Black reparations the next.
Yes, this is an ABC News production, with serious subjects. The opener (10 p.m. March 2) will include one segment on reparations and another interviewing Harry Dunn, an outspoken member of the U.S. Capitol Police.
But the opener also has spoken-word poetry (by Common) … music (John Legend doing “Never Break”) … a short film on the history of Blacks in cinema … and “In the Kitchen,” a weekly segment.
“That is our attempt within every show to stay on what is happening in the world that week, that day,” said producer Eric Johnson. Sonny Hostin of “The View” moderates the “Kitchen” segment; the opener includes actor Sterling K. Brown (who also hosts that hour) and lawyer-activist Angela Rye.
In a way, this show enters the void created when public-TV’s “Soul” was canceled, 48 years ago.
“Soul” tried to do it all – poets and pop (Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle), authors and activists (James Baldwin, Stokely Camichael), dancers and jazzmen and more. It stirred controversy … and was canceled after five seasons.
When she was a PBS executive, Nelson pushed the development of “Mr. Soul,” an award-winning documentary about that show. Once she reached ABC, she created “Soul of a Nation,” which will have some music – Audra Day, Cynthia Erivo and H.E.R. are coming – alongside news features.
“I’m incredibly proud to see” the PBS documentary, Nelson said. “As we look at what we’re doing with ‘Soul of a Nation,’ it’s clear that we stand on the shoulders of incredible giants.”
But this show has clear advantages over its predecessors.
They were mostly confined to a studio. This time, Imbriano said, “we are out in the field, doing very cinematic sort of short-film, documentary features.”
And this show can work alongside ABC News. The Capitol Police story, Nelson said, “was an interview that the News division has been pursuing for the last couple months”
Working at ABC means having “this incredible megaphone,” she said. The network had documentaries on “America in Pain,” the Juneteenth celebrations and a “20/20” probe of the Breonna Taylor shooting.
For each of those, she said, more than 40 percent of the viewers were Black. “But what I always remind folks is that the majority” were White.
The same should be true of “Soul of a Nation,” Imbriano said. “This has Black stories, but for all people.”