After 85 years serving as Harlem’s world-famous music hall, and the breakout stage for countless performers, The Apollo receives a definitive telling of its history from academy award-winning director Roger Ross Williams.
And what a history. Stars from every era flash across the screen, featured in a massive collection of archival footage, or in modern-day interviews, from Ella Fitzgerald to Patti LaBelle to Lauryn Hill to Pharrell. The list goes on and on.
Just ahead of the New Year on Monday, December 30 at the Neue House NYC, we watched the theater’s beginnings as one of the few venues that featured black performers both on stage and in the audience, and the rare opportunities it afforded black artists in a segregated America. It’s where Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” in a space that was classified as whites-only just a generation prior. It’s where James Brown performed “Say it Loud (I’m Black and Proud)” in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. Artists like Lauryn Hill and Dave Chappelle cut their teeth here at the theater’s raucous tradition of Amateur Night.
The theater served as church for its audience members, and a home away from home for its performers. They put on five shows a day and hung around in between, running from their dressing rooms down to the stage, to glean all they could from the other acts. For some, it served as even more. James Brown’s funeral was ultimately held at the Apollo.
The cultural significance of the Apollo cannot be overstated, and the documentary captures just that. But it doesn’t stop there. The film opts for a non-chronological flow, keeping an intentional focus on race and politics. The opening night of the stage adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” bookends the documentary. It’s a reminder of the entrenched systemic racism that continues to divide and discriminate, and which has abated little, if at all, during the Apollo’s history.
“The Apollo” showcases an illustrious, often unrecognized, history of black excellence in America intertwined with the theater’s critical role in a complex political and racial history. Ultimately, it asks what’s next for this fabled institution?
We can answer that question as far as programming goes. The Apollo still features black performers and other performers of color, big and small, and proudly continues its harrowing tradition of Amateur Night. They started a film series, which kicked off with this very documentary (FYI a live-scored screening of Shaft is on the calendar). The theater also plans to open two new black box theaters designed to incubate up and coming artists of color.
The Apollo’s continued legacy remains an open question, and one we eagerly look forward to seeing answered.
Following the screening on December 30, film producer Lisa Cortés, editor Jean Tsien, cinematographer Nadia Hallgren, and Executive Producer at the Apollo Theater Kamilah Forbes sat down for a brief Q&A.
For more information about the documentary and the theater’s future programming, check out their website. For more information about Brown Girls Doc Mafia, a collective that advocates for women and non-binary people of color in the documentary industry, click here.