'The Apollo' Solidifies Black Harlem's Past But Leaves Uneasy Questions About Its Future [Tribeca Review]
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.
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