‘The Apollo’ By Oscar- And Emmy-Winning Director Roger Ross Williams, Is A Standout Work

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Written by Lauren DeLisa Coleman
Apollo Theater
The Apollo marquee Photo courtesy of HBO

Tribeca Film Festival, currently in its 18th year, is in full swing with films that speak to the massive tapestry of the human experience. Of those that speak specifically to the African-American experience, “The Apollo” by Oscar- and Emmy-winning director Roger Ross Williams, is a stand-out work.

The film, which chronicles the unique history and contemporary legacy of New York City’s landmark Apollo Theater, is a feature-length documentary that premieres this fall on HBO. This media outlet has continued to set the standard for richly crafted, often edgy content, and “The Apollo” does not disappoint as part of a long list of engaging films distributed by HBO.

While mythic in nature, The Apollo is such a familiar part of American culture that many of us may think we know the full story of an iconic offering for the most part. Yet the filmmaker has somehow managed to reveal the depth of historical and present-day racism, coupled with the business aspect of the brand mixed with the massive weight and cavernous depth of emotion that is hope, defeat, sadness, joy – and, dare we say, utter earth-shaking talent that demonstrates how The Apollo is, indeed, indicative of a microcosm of the Black American experience under one relatively small roof.

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The film weaves together archival clips of music, comedy and dance performances with rich interviews with such artists as Jamie Foxx, Angela Bassett, Pharrell Williams, Common, Patti LaBelle and Smokey Robinson. It is perhaps the footage of a young Ella Fitzgerald or the painful expression of Billie Holiday on stage that is surprising and stirring. But this is far from a collection of celebrity interviews and performances.

This is about understanding how racism impacted the travel and payments of various artists in earlier times, the internal social hierarchy within the theater, the financial grip of caucasian owners of The Apollo, the hopefulness of the amateurs struggling just to get transportation to the venue and much more which is compelling from the opening credits to the end.

Williams said in a statement, “Telling the story of The Apollo came with a lot of excitement, but also a huge sense of responsibility. First of all, how does one tell a story that spans 85 legacy-defining years in a way that goes beyond your average historical, archival documentary? Most of these stories are in the past, and while that past is glorious and important, I felt the story needed to be told in a way that engages with the present and ultimately excites a new generation.

“I knew from the beginning that I wanted to focus on the people behind the scenes of The Apollo: the people who have maintained and continue to run this great institution. People like Joe Gray, the stagehand who became the ‘set it off man’ and face of amateur night, and Billy Mitchell, who started out running errands there as a young Harlem kid 50 years ago, and carries so much history with him. And, of course, the people who are running the Apollo now: Jonelle Procope, who saved the Apollo from becoming only a memory and ensured its continued success and relevance as a Black cultural institution in the modern world. And Kamilah Forbes, who is creating innovative work there that could only be created through and nurtured on The Apollo stage.

“The story of The Apollo is the story of Black struggle: how African Americans have created and used music and art and hard work and ingenuity to pull ourselves up out of oppression and tell our truth to the world. And that struggle continues.

“So, when I heard that Kamilah Forbes was developing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, ‘Between the World and Me,’ into a multi-media stage production, I realized this was an opportunity to tell this continuing story through a modern lens.”

Indeed, somehow the film seems to use this content as its true north and returns to it again and again throughout the film. Coates has somehow become the current default litmus in America as it pertains to the Black experience, thus perhaps why he and his work are leveraged here. However, our demographic is far too vast, encompasses a number of concerns and is certainly more than simply male in nature to be embodied in one, sole individual spokesperson-of-sorts. However, if you can get past that, “The Apollo” opens up like a firmly situated lotus where one can see triumph and creativity develop in spite of segregation, riots and just plain everyday hardships of life. We see that the stage is a place of protest in “The Apollo” as well as ground-breaking creativity. We see the ensuing decline of the business. We see the re-defining of it into a new organization for a new period.

While the film could have potentially included a bit more on hip hop’s impact on sustaining the brand into a new era as well as how younger viewers drove much of the television extension, “Showtime At The Apollo,” the film demonstrates how the theater continues to be a location which convenes and oftentimes acts as a sanctuary-of-sorts.

Williams worked with producer and Harlem resident Lisa Cortés (“Precious”) to join as a producer. Emmy and Grammywinning composer Robert Glasper blended jazz and gospel to create a sound anchored in the past and looking toward the future. Renowned editor Jean Tsien (“Shut Up & Sing”, “Miss Sharon Jones!” and “Malcom X: Make It Plain”, and John S. Fisher created a viewing experience that was more than fluid.

“Art has always been about taking your pain and expressing it in your work,” said Williams. “As I watched the early footage of those icons of Black music performing at the Apollo, I would always remember that they were usually just back from the road, where they were often not allowed to stay or even eat at the places where they performed. You could feel their pain coming through their joy in those performances. It has been an honor, this time, to be able to make my work about their work. I hope this film serves as a reminder of who we are as a people, our power, our perseverance and our greatness.”