Located in Harlem, New York, a vibrant neighborhood in Manhattan, the iconic Apollo Theater has stood for nearly 90 years on 125th street as a pillar of Black culture and community and a safe space for Black creatives. In his sweeping documentary, The Apollo, Roger Ross Williams chronicles the history of the Apollo Theater which began when it first opened its doors in 1934. Though the golden era of Harlem is known for the Savoy and the Cotton Club, spaces where legendary entertainers like Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker graced the stage, these venues were not open to Black Americans and certainly not for the Black residents of Harlem to be patrons. In the 1930s that all changed. With the help of talent scout/”Amateur Night” creator Ralph Cooper, the Apollo owner Frank Schiffman would bring Black entertainment and entertainers home to their people.
Using breathtaking archival video from inside of the Apollo and the streets of Harlem across the decades, Williams gives his audience a true sense of the giants that the Apollo introduced to the world. From 12-year old Stevie Wonder blowing on his harmonica in 1962 to Lauryn Hill in the early ‘90s getting booed off the stage for her pitchy vocals, it’s all there. The archives of this place are almost overwhelming. Choosing to place his interview subjects within the famed building as they provide history lessons and historical context also gives Williams’ The Apollo a certain authority.
There are interviews with icons like Patti LaBelle, Apollo historian and tour guide Billy “Mr. Apollo” Mitchell, who has been giving tours there for over fifty years, and other icons like Eva Issac, the “Queen of the Apollo.” The Apollo is sprinkled with gems. Williams places his film within the context of Black history in this country while providing anecdotes about the theater itself. The audience hears from folks like Leslie Uggams who performed at the Apollo as a child star and watched Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington from the theater wings. She recalls how affectionate they all were towards her and how they adored Black people.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
However, Williams glides over the rockier history of the theater, including the less-than-savory business tactics of Schiffman. Though Schiffman was able to bring Black talent back to the community, he overworked and underpaid them for their 29 shows a week. Beginning in 1946, he left meticulous 5×8 note cards on every act he hired giving notes about the performance and business practice. He often included varied descriptions of the sex appeal of the female acts.
Despite the Apollo’s glory and the massive figures including James Brown who played the theater over 200 times, the theater was not built for a modern day audience or business model. With just under 1,500 seats and the devastation of America’s inner cities with the crack cocaine epidemic in the late ‘70s and early ’80s, Jack Schiffman, the son of the theater’s original owner, had to close the theater’s doors. The Apollo fell into disrepair for several years until it was restored in the mid-‘80s by former Manhattan Borough President Percy E. Sutton. Despite its resurgence, the theater was still a massive money suck, and Sutton eventually partnered with the State of New York to create the Apollo Theater Foundation to make sure it remained open.
Cramming 90 years of history into a 98-minute documentary is a monumental feat, but Williams mostly succeeds. He spins the legacy of Apollo around preparations for the 2018 stage adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ Between the World and Me. As the audience learns more about the history of the building, Williams anchors Coates’ 21st-century examination of what it means to be Black in America. Like it has done for nearly a century, the Apollo was able to provide a haven for that work and for a new generation of Black people who are learning to live and thrive in this country.
Despite The Apollo’s triumphant message, it is difficult to think about what might happen to the theater and Harlem as a whole as more Black residents are squeezed out, eroding the neighborhood’s history and bringing in insanely priced housing and more oblivious white residents. Though the infamous red-marquee continues to shine bright and bold, like a beacon welcoming us home, an uneasy question echoes: For how long?
The Apollo premiered as the opening night selection at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. HBO will release the film later this year.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide
Photo: Tribeca Film Festival