There are few cultural institutions in the United States to rival the importance of The Apollo Theater in Harlem. For going on a hundred years the 1,500-seat venue has showcased the foremost African-American talent, from Duke Ellington to Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Richard Pryor, Marvin Gaye, and Sarah Vaughan, among countless others.
“That stage, The Apollo, is where we go to voice who we are, where we are and where we’re going,” Oscar-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams tells Deadline. His HBO documentary The Apollo is one of 15 shortlisted features that Oscar Documentary Branch voters are considering as they mark their nomination ballots. The film highlights some of the seminal moments in Apollo history.
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“Everything that happens on that stage is really political, whether it’s The Temptations in Italian suits changing the image and perception of what Black men looked like, or Billie Holiday singing the protest song ‘Strange Fruit,’ which she could only sing at The Apollo—it was banned in radio stations,” Williams notes, “to James Brown in 1968 [performing] ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud,’ a rallying cry for America after the assassination of Martin Luther King.”
The film also documents how The Apollo launched the careers of young talent, like Ella Fitzgerald, who first performed there at age 17, or Jimi Hendrix, who played guitar on stage in 1964. In a more recent era, comedian Dave Chappelle and singer Lauryn Hill cut their teeth at The Apollo, but future stars often found their first experience a trial by fire. Patrons attending the famed Amateur Night events do not disguise their reactions, whether in praise or scorn.
“That’s what’s amazing about The Apollo and about the Harlem audience is that they’ll let you know how they’re feeling about what you’re doing on that stage,” Williams observes. “[Performers] are in dialogue with that audience and that’s a thing that’s sort of unique to the black community. I grew up in church singing in the choir—the call and response of the pastor and the congregation is quintessentially Black. The Apollo is a church, it’s a temple and it’s the heart of the Black community.”
Compressing the story into a single film wasn’t easy, Williams says.
“It could easily be a 10-part series, or 13-part series even,” the director comments. “There’s so much there to mine, there’s so much history, 85 years of history, and it was a huge challenge to figure out how am I going to whittle this down to 90 minutes. That was a challenge, an overwhelming task.”
For much of its storied history, The Apollo was co-owned by a white man, Frank Schiffman, who opened the doors to an integrated audience, unlike its original incarnation as a burlesque house whose owners didn’t admit Black people. In 1991 it was purchased by the State of New York and is run by a nonprofit foundation that has sought to maintain The Apollo as a vibrant cultural force.
“The Apollo today is grappling with that as an institution. Are they a museum to the past or are they going to chart a future for young African-American artists?” Williams notes. “And I think The Apollo is very much giving a platform to different young artists…They’re expanding, they have an artists in residency program. Ta-Nehisi Coates [author of Between the World and Me] is the first Artist-in-Residence there.”
Despite The Apollo’s renown, Williams believes its importance in American life hasn’t been adequately appreciated.
“Again, a great contribution by African Americans that has gone unrecognized…African Americans, starting in the roots of slavery through the challenges of segregation, gave so much to this country and people don’t even realize. So it’s important to make that [clear], to make that point that The Apollo was a game changer,” Williams affirms. “So I hope people get to see it and really understand that it’s not a film about a building. This is a film about a community. This film is, for me, really about the resilience of Black people in America.”
Williams, who serves on the Academy’s Board of Governors, became the first African-American director to win an Oscar, for his 2010 short documentary Music by Prudence. His 2017 feature documentary Life, Animated earned an Academy Award nomination. He says hearing the news The Apollo had made the Oscar shortlist left him deeply moved.
“I actually teared up. Actually, I cried,” Williams reveals. “I think I cried because the story of The Apollo is my story as a Black artist who is trying to find his way in…a documentary space where there aren’t a lot of—I didn’t have any mentors. There are not a lot of Black faces around me in the room and to be recognized for making a film about a powerful symbol of Black America got me really emotional.”
He adds, “There is nothing greater than the opportunity in the platform of the Oscar stage to speak to that—to speak to the resilience and power that Black people have had in this country. It’s been a struggle, continues to be a struggle. And it meant a lot that my fellow colleagues in the documentary world liked it enough to shortlist it for an Academy Award.”
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