It is no exaggeration to say that in 2019, black culture and pop culture are pretty much interchangeable terms, but it wasn’t always so. I’m old enough to remember when there were not a lot of black faces on television and even less black music, but I always knew exactly where to go for both: Don Cornelius’ Soul Train.
BET’s new series American Soul recreates that era and puts it in its proper historical context, following Cornelius’ rise from local Chicago TV host to nationally syndicated celebrity as he creates the first all-black owned, black cast, black crew TV show, and giving African American viewers the first show they could really point to and say, “that’s ours.”
Played with quiet confidence by Sinqua Walls, Cornelius is resourceful, calculating, and above all determined to navigate the treacherous path to getting his show on as many screens, seen by as many people as possible. In the first two episodes we see him deal with racist cops, dismissive talent managers, demanding label representatives, a sleazy (if charming) club owner, and his own employees, finding a way to get what he needs from each of them — sometimes through charm, sometimes through manipulation, sometimes through forebearance, sometimes through banging on the table.
The charm is on overdrive when, after failing to get a meeting with James Brown about performing on the first syndicated Soul Train, Cornelius is introduced to Gladys Knight (Kelly Rowland). Rowland is a dead ringer for the young Gladys, and acquits herself well in the role — the singing is on point (of course) but she also has the poise of an established, if not quite yet A-list, performer who took a few trips around the block to get to where she is. (Rowland is only the first of many real-life musicians portrayed in the series; her Destiny’s Child bandmate Michelle Williams will appear as Diana Ross in a future episode, Bobby Brown — recently the subject of his own BET biopic — will play Rufus Thomas, and fictional versions of the Jackson 5, Eddie Kendricks, and Lionel Richie are all set to appear.)
Cornelius is less charming when dealing with his assistant Tessa (Iantha Richardson), who bears the brunt of Cornelius’ brusque, withholding management style and wants to quit, but can’t give up the thrill of working with all of these exuberant young dancers and creating such a positive view of black music and culture.
Where the series stumbles is with a plot running parallel with Cornelius’, concerning a young musical trio called Encore. This band is, as far as I know, totally fictional, and my best guess is that they are meant to flesh out the series’ dramatic possibilities, as it appears to be built to run for multiple 10-episode seasons. The performers — Jelani Winston, Christopher Jefferson, and Katlyn Nichol — are appealing enough, but the story structure and editing of the pilot are confusing enough to make you wonder how they fit in. Siblings Kendall and Simone, along with Simone’s steady J.T., are wowing everyone they play for as Encore, but they’re too young to work in clubs, so when Simone hears they’re auditioning dancers for a new TV show, she reasons that if they can get famous dancing on TV, club owners won’t care how young they are. This plot also affords the show a prism through which to show some of the social issues of the time, as J.T. is a teenage father saddled with a heroin-addicted mother, he falls in with a crowd of militant black nationalists, and Kendall worries about getting drafted to Vietnam like his father.
But where the show excels is with recreating the distinctive look of Soul Train — Cornelius’ over-the-top ‘70s fashions very much included — and with the music choices. The second episode features a stellar solo piano performance by Rowland of Gladys Knight’s signature hit, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and it’s a safe bet that it will be followed by many more.
I don’t quite understand why this show is not a limited series with a beginning, middle, and end, or what a Season 2 might look like, but I’m looking forward to seeing more Love, Peace, and Soooooul.
American Soul premieres at 9pm ET Tuesday on BET, and on-demand on Wednesday.