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Reviving the legacy of Don Cornelius

By Simone Williams I Copy Desk Editor
On February 19, 2019

Series poster for American Soul.
Photo Courtesy of Black Entertainment Television.

“American Soul” recently premiered on BET. The series follows the story of TV legend Don Cornelius in the ’70s as he works to put his music dance show, “Soul Train,” at the forefront of mainstream American television.

“Soul Train” grew to become a game-changing television phenomenon which ran for 35 years and greatly elevated the visibility of black culture. And this series is coming right on time, as it would appear that younger generations are uninformed on the impact of Don Cornelius and “Soul Train.”

Business administration major and aspiring filmmaker Jazmin Johnson said she’s heard her parents talk about loving “Soul Train,” but didn’t know about Don Cornelius or the show’s deeper impact. Still, she can appreciate the importance of a more robust representation of African Americans, even today.

She explained that music, television and the news all contribute to people’s stereotypes and preconceived notions, so “it’s extremely imperative that media is a true, diverse and reflective of all walks of black life.”

She also explained the importance of future black generations seeing honest depictions of themselves on television: “I believe if we want to keep our history truthful and sacred – and to educate black generations to come – it is important that we tell these stories through our art.”

The series follows the stories of Cornelius and three young aspiring musicians. However, the greatest emphasis is placed on what “Soul Train” means to everyone involved. In the first episode, Cornelius’ character explained “Soul Train’s” powerful potential to show black people at their most authentic and allow blacks complete control over their own narrative.

"I'm talking about a national television show, written, produced and owned by black folks,” he explained. "I'm talking about bringing us –  not whitewashed, not toned-down -- but us.  Into millions of homes, like it or not!”

He continued, “Black folks the way black folks were meant to be seen: strong powerful and beautiful. There won't be another show like it. And it won't just be mine, it will be all of ours."

It appears that the show will also touch on the importance of maintaining one’s mental health in the pursuit of success.

The series-opening scene shows a 75-year-old Cornelius in the seconds before he committed suicide in his home in 2007. As the series goes on, Cornelius’ relentless drive and merciless determination to make “Soul Train” into the phenomenon he knew it could be (and should be) begins to take clear tolls on his relationships, primarily his relationship with his wife.

Overall, the series is shaping up to be as wholesome and heartfelt as it is comical. “American Soul” airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on BET.

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