In 2019 filmmaker Roger Ross Williams contended for an Emmy with his VR documentary Traveling While Black, a sensory experience that told the true story of the Negro Motorist Green Book (as opposed to the 2018 Oscar-winning film, which opted for a white-centric storyline).
With final 2020 Emmy voting now underway, Williams is back in contention with The Apollo, another documentary that speaks forcefully to the African-American journey. The HBO film, nominated for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, is at once an exploration of the historic theater in Harlem—the premiere showcase of Black entertainment talent for generations—and a monument to a people refusing to be erased despite systemic oppression.
“We succeed in spite of racism. We flourish in spite of racism,” Williams tells Deadline. “There’s a line in The Apollo that I think says it all, where Ta-Nehisi [Coates] says, ‘Our music is so beautiful that even those with their boots on our necks can’t help but sing along.’ It speaks so much to who we are as Black people in the country.”
The documentary traces key moments in the history of The Apollo, like the night in 1934 when a 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald made her debut on Amateur Night, and performances that became landmarks in the struggle against oppression.
“Billie Holiday singing the protest song ‘Strange Fruit,’ which she could only sing at The Apollo—it was banned on radio stations,” Williams highlights, “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 documentary is framed around a new production for The Apollo, a dramatic interpretation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the bestselling book that takes the form of a letter from Coates to his teenage son, warning him of America’s insatiable appetite for Black blood.
“When we filmed that final show at The Apollo theater [in 2018], the entire crew was in tears,” Williams recalls. “Because the way Ta-Nehisi speaks about the destruction of the Black body, and how its destruction has become part of the fabric of America, it is something that we all live with as Black people… Little did we know that this racial ‘reckoning,’ I’m calling it, would come to really grip the entire country.”
As Deadline reported last month, HBO is working on a version of that stage show to air this fall as a special event, with Williams producing and Apollo Theater executive producer Kamilah Forbes directing. An extraordinary group of performers has signed up to participate.
“We made a casting announcement of Oprah and Angela Bassett and Joe Morton,” Williams notes. “More to come. Very exciting.”
The production is being filmed under strict COVID-19 guidelines. When we reached Williams last week at his house in upstate New York, he was watching by remote as Oprah filmed a scene from Between the World and Me.
“It is fast-tracked. We are heavily in production. We are shooting every day,” Williams comments. “It’s really important to all of us executive producers, to me and Kamilah Forbes…and Ta-Nehisi, that as many people see this as humanly possible, and that they see it as a family because it is a letter to his 15-year-old Black son. So it’s a conversation that we hope American families can sit around and watch it and talk about.”
Williams has been making more news of late, including word he is joining with Kenya Barris to produce a feature documentary for Netflix on civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who has represented numerous families of unarmed African-Americans killed by white police officers or white vigilantes. Nadia Hallgren, director of the Emmy-nominated documentary Becoming, about former First Lady Michelle Obama, is directing.
Of Crump, Williams notes, “Every time he gets called to go to another killing, another shooting, he’s like, ‘They’re still killing us. They’re still killing us.’ And he wrote this book called Open Season, and for him, it really is. It’s been open season on Black lives since the founding of this country, and it’s sort of baked into the fabric of this country, which, unfortunately, keeps Ben Crump very busy. He’s a fascinating and towering figure.”
Williams is also venturing into scripted territory, preparing to direct the feature film Cassandro, the story of a real-life gay professional wrestler from Texas who became known as the “Liberace of Lucha Libre.” Gael García Bernal is on board to star. It’s based on a short documentary Williams directed about Saúl Armendáriz, the man behind the glittering mask.
“I went down to El Paso, Texas, where Cassandro was from. The first day of shooting, I was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re a film. Your story is a fiction film,’” Williams remembers thinking. “I was like, ‘This is going to be my first fiction film.’ And so I enlisted the help of David Teague, who was my editor on Life, Animated. And we wrote the screenplay together, did the Sundance Screenwriting Lab, and then I did the Sundance Directing Lab… Got to spend five weeks at the lab and work with [Robert] Redford…and Kasi Lemmons, and all these incredible advisors that come to the lab. For me, coming from documentaries, my challenge was to figure out how to work with actors.”
Williams will have a bit more time to mull that over as pre-production continues amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re shooting it in Mexico City,” Williams shares. “We’re looking at [starting] the beginning of next year.”
With so many projects in the works, and an Emmy nomination for The Apollo, it’s an exciting moment for the Oscar-winning filmmaker.
“It’s crazy. It’s so great. I’m like, ‘This is my time, finally,’” Williams says with a hint of incredulity. “A lot of things had to happen to get to this moment, but it’s really incredible. And all of us now, all of us Black and brown people of color, we’re all looking at each other going, ‘Is your phone ringing off the hook?’ Our phones are suddenly ringing for the first time.”
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