The Apollo Documentary is a Much-Needed Reflection at #Urbanworld2019
By Donnia Harrington
Roger Ross Williams’ documentary on the history of the landmark Apollo Theater had been in the works for nearly a decade before it was finally made—the project was passed along among big names like Lee Daniels before landing in the hands of Williams, who was both excited to take on the task and perplexed that it took so long for a documentary like this to be made. The Apollo Theater’s 85-year history had never been told from the perspective of people who worked there, who currently work there, who grew up in Harlem during the Apollo’s inception, prime, bankruptcy and rise to fame again until now. Through the eyes of the many artists who called the Apollo home, Williams’ documentary paints a moving portrait of a timeless landmark with an influence that extended beyond entertainment.
At 98 minutes, The Apollo delves into the theater’s 85-year history without hesitation, starting with a spoken word monologue about police brutality from actor Joe Morton before showing clips of various artists, singers, and dancers performing on the very stage that Morton stood on throughout the years, artists ranging from Duke Ellington to Will Smith and Queen Latifah. A lifelong Harlem resident speaks in a voiceover describing what the Apollo means to the community: “The Apollo is synonymous with what it means to be you, as black people… what you can imagine seeing yourself doing.”
In a still segregated United States, the Apollo was one of the few establishments that allowed people from any racial background to sit together as one to enjoy music and entertainment while uplifting Black talent. This alone made the Apollo a safe haven for African Americans. The documentary features interviews from a variety of artists, most notably dancer Leslie Uggams, who was just nine years old when she started performing at the Apollo. She reminisces on her early days watching every Louis Armstrong performance and how Ella Fitzgerald would always have food for her and the other performers. In this safe haven, artists formed bonds with each other. They were a family.
The documentary jumps between chronicling the past and present day, where the Apollo is now a registered landmark of the United States with daily tours. Performances have extended beyond music to other art forms such as spoken word and essay reading. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book of letters to his son, Between the World and Me, is the main project that the documentary follows; local artists and A-list stars such as Common and Angela Bassett are a part of the project to bring Coates’ words to life, where he speaks to his son about growing up Black in a country that still oppresses you. Williams juxtaposes Coates’ book with the history of those who found safe haven in the Apollo theater by showing how unafraid and bold artists were when they performed on stage. James Brown wasn’t restricted when he chanted, “Black and proud!” to the audience, Public Enemy shouted, “Fight the power!” to those who found their lyrics relatable; a social message that also served as a form of protest.
This kind of openness wouldn’t have been possible if a place like the Apollo didn’t exist and the documentary embraces the fact that the layers of the landmark are endless. From Barack Obama being the first president to visit the theater to James Brown’s funeral being held there, the significance of the Apollo to African American history and what it meant to the community made the theater larger than life. Even today, the Apollo is still larger than life.
With so much history to tell, there are some stories that get lost in the mix. Amateur Night at the Apollo is the longest running talent show in history. Showtime at the Apollo ran for over twenty years, the television show featuring upcoming talent hoping to be accepted by the Apollo community. Sometimes they succeeded with applause, sometimes they failed hilariously with boos. But outside of being what seems like an American Idol-esque process, being on stage at the Apollo has a deeper meaning to those who hope to perform. People come from all walks of life around the country for this chance, many of them African American, their own motivations and driving them to travel to the Apollo instead of, say, American Idol.
The message is understood, but the presentation is brief. The Apollo’s history is so rich that 98 minutes simply isn’t enough; the working dynamics between artists performing at the theater could go from familial to competitive, but everyone still worked towards the same goal. These moments made an already interesting documentary even deeper, moments lost in the big picture of it all. But whether you’re an Apollo expert or someone who just vaguely knows about the theater, Williams’ documentary about the achievements and influence of the African American community is a much-needed one during this time in American history.
Donnia Harrington has been writing critically about film for over three years. Her work has been published on FlickSided, Audiences Everywhere and ComicBook Debate. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys foreign cinema, female-centered video games, Korean music and Scandinavian crime novels. Check out some of her other contributions to soulhead.