April 25, 2019
by Carla Hay
Directed by Roger Ross Williams
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 24, 2019.
The legendary Apollo Theater in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood has been around since 1934, and there is now finally a definitive documentary film about the venue’s legacy and lasting impact on culture. “The Apollo,” directed by Roger Ross Williams, skillfully manages the enormous task of taking all of the Apollo’s rich and complicated history and making it into a cohesive and fascinating story. The movie begins and ends with the Apollo’s 2018 world premiere of the stage adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” his 2015 award-winning non-fiction book about what it means to be a black person in America. Angela Bassett and Common were among the entertainers who starred in the production.
The Apollo—which became a U.S. and New York City landmark in 1983—has hosted numerous actors, dancers, comedians and other entertainers, but the music artists are the ones who shine the brightest in the documentary. The archival footage in the film is breathtaking to watch, as it’s a thrilling reminder that virtually all of the most influential black entertainers from the 1930s onward have performed at the Apollo. The list reads like a who’s who of black culture: Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Gladys Knight, and every major star who’s been on Motown Records, including Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. Frank Schiffman, the original owner of the Apollo, is described as a ruthless businessman who saw the Apollo as an opportunity to provide an important showcase for black artists, beginning when these artists were shut out of “whites only” establishments. People of all races have performed at the Apollo, but this documentary focuses on black entertainers, in keeping with the Apollo’s original intention to be a venue primarily to showcase black talent.
Anyone familiar with the Apollo already knows about its famous “Amateur Night” talent contest (which was the brainchild of longtime Apollo emcee Ralph Cooper), but the documentary gives some insight into what you might not know: Cooper kept extensive notes (many of which are shown in the movie) on each performer from “Amateur Night,” as well as the established artists who graced the stage of the Apollo. The documentary includes footage of several “Amateur Nights” over the years (including a 13-year-old Lauryn Hill’s first Apollo performance in 1987, when she was booed on stage while singing the Jackson 5’s “Who’s Loving You”), as well as more recent behind-the-scenes and on-stage footage of aspiring entertainers. Several people in the documentary note that the Apollo audience is notoriously hard to please, so getting a standing ovation from the crowd is a badge of honor for any entertainer. The TV show “Showtime at the Apollo” (formerly known as “It’s Showtime at the Apollo”) is the long-running series that has highlights from the Apollo’s “Amateur Night.”
Jamie Foxx, who is interviewed in the film, also noted that many black comedians felt at home at the Apollo because they could be their uncensored selves and not have to worry about watering down their stand-up acts. The documentary includes footage of comedians such as Foxx, Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley, Chris Rock and Dick Gregory. Singer/actress Leslie Uggams, who began performing at the Apollo at the age of 9, shares some fond backstage memories in the documentary. She remembered that Ella Fitzgerald was always offering people food backstage, while Dinah Washington would generously dole out $100 bills to performers who were down on their luck.
The documentary also shows that the Apollo, much like black culture in America, is a story of resilience in the face of difficult obstacles. The Apollo’s relatively small capacity of about 1,500 people made it increasingly difficult for the venue to stay in business, and it temporarily closed in 1976, after filing for bankruptcy. Even when Inner City Broadcasting chief Percy Sutton bought the Apollo in 1983, making him the Apollo’s first black owner, the business still found it difficult to make a profit. In 1991, the state of New York bought the Apollo, which is now run by the non-profit Apollo Theater Foundation.
Even though the Apollo has long been considered a prestigious venue for black artists, it’s also a place that took risks and booked entertainers who were embroiled in controversy. Pharrell Williams and Doug E. Fresh give interviews in the documentary about how the Apollo was one of the first major venues in the United States to offer a major stage platform for hip-hop artists, including those such as Public Enemy and N.W.A, who would frequently speak out against the police in their songs. The Apollo also booked Billie Holiday at a time when her song “Strange Fruit” was considered offensive to many Southern people. Bobby Schiffman, Frank Schiffman’s son who inherited the Apollo until the venue filed for bankruptcy and closed in 1976, tells a story in the documentary about Eartha Kitt being afraid for her life to perform at the Apollo in 1960, because she had recently married a white man, and had been getting death threats from white and black people. But she won over the crowd, and Schiffman said it turned out to be one of her best performances, as well as a lesson for the Apollo that great entertainment on stage could triumph over any controversy going on outside the venue.
That’s not to say that the Apollo has been unaffected by social and political events. The documentary also puts everything into historical context, from the Apollo’s earliest years in the era of legal segregation, to the civil rights movements of the 1960s, to the rise of “black power” ideology in the 1970s to the influence of hip-hop culture in the 1980s and beyond. The message of the movie is that whatever has been an important historical touchstone for African-Americans from the 1930s and beyond—whether it was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. or Shirley Chisholm running for president of the United States or the Black Lives Matter movement—the Apollo’s audiences and the entertainment on stage have been affected. The documentary also points out that the Apollo is also one of the first places that people go to for memorials when black icons die. The documentary includes footage of Apollo memorials after the deaths of Brown, Franklin, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Prince.
Even with all the superstar entertainers who have graced the stage at the Apollo, one guest remains a special favorite: Barack Obama, who became the first sitting U.S. president to do an on-stage presentation at the Apollo. The documentary includes footage of that 2012 appearance, as well as of Obama backstage. If you visit the Apollo, longtime Apollo tour guide Billy Mitchell—also known as Mr. Apollo—might show you the wall of autographs that include Obama’s signature and those of many other celebrities. (There’s footage of Mitchell giving a tour in the documentary too.)
“The Apollo” is an expertly told story that does justice to the Apollo and the people who made the venue great. The only downside is that the movie will eventually become outdated as future legends will make their own history by performing on the Apollo stage. Until there’s a sequel or updated film, this documentary will stand as the most comprehensive visual story about the Apollo.
UPDATE: HBO will premiere “The Apollo” on November 6, 2019.