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Roger Ross Williams' 'The Apollo' Is More Than Just Music History

By Ron Deutsch

From Roger Ross Williams' 'The Apollo.' Courtesy of HBO

Roger Ross Williams grew up in Easton, Pennsylvania and then moved to New York to, as he has said, escape both racism and homophobia in his hometown. After graduating from New York University, he started his career writing for Michael Moore's 1994 television series TV Nation. He continued working in television over the next decade, including directing New York Underground, a documentary TV series produced by The New York Times and the Discovery Channel about the life in the city's subway system.

In 2010, Williams became the first African-American director to win an Oscar, for his documentary short Music by Prudence, about a disabled singer/songwriter from Zimbabwe who, through her music, transcends ostracism from her own community. His first feature documentary, God Loves Uganda (2013), looked at how American evangelists were promoting anti-gay legislation in that African country. The film premiered at Sundance and aired on PBS' Independent Lens.

His second feature documentary, Life, Animated (2016), was about a young autistic boy who learns to communicate with his family and the outside world through his love of Disney animated movies. The film received an Emmy and an Oscar nomination. In 2018, he released American Jail, a personal journey back to Easton to examine his past and what might have been his possible future, as well as an exposé of how the American prison system has become a way of life for many African-Americans.

Williams recently released his first VR short this year, Traveling While Black, which virtually takes one inside the story of the Green Book, the African-American travel guide that was published from 1936 to 1966; Traveling While Black, which currently streams on New York Times Op-Docs, was nominated for an Emmy this year.

His latest feature, The Apollo, looks back at the 85-year history of the legendary Harlem institution. The 1500-seat theater began its life as a burlesque house in 1914. In the mid-1920s, the city tried to clean up its image and directed its wrath against burlesque. The Apollo closed in the wake of that crackdown, and then reopened in 1934, offering a variety of music, comedy and dance revues for Harlem's African-American community. At that time, the big venues in Harlem, such as the Cotton Club, while featuring African-American performers, were for White patrons only. Over the next 85 years—though it was closed on and off and changed owners several times between 1976 and 1983—it has been a mecca for African-American performers and a beacon of pride for its community, launching many careers and earning its place in American entertainment history. Singers from Ella Fitzgerald (who famously won the weekly Amateur Night competition in 1935) to Lauryn Hill (who infamously was booed at her Amateur Night debut), and comedians from Mantan Moreland (notably the comic relief in the Charlie Chan movies of the 1930's and '40s) to Dave Chapelle (who was also booed on Amateur Night, at age 16), all graced its stage.

For Williams, the opportunity to make a film about the Apollo became another avenue to explore African-American history, much as he had done with American Jail. He bookends the movie with rehearsals and the premiere performance of a staged reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates' multi-award-winning book Between the World and Me on the Apollo stage. Coates' book explores segregation and racism in America, using a letter he writes to his adolescent son. Performers for the stage reading included actors Joe Morton and Angela Bassett. Williams uses it as a pretext to contextualize the story and iconic performances at the Apollo with what was happening in race relations at every step.

The challenge of telling the theater's storied history over 98 minutes obviously meant that there had to be some sacrifices, such as performances from Jimi Hendrix and Fela Kuti. Buddy Holly & the Crickets were also booked there by mistake (there was a Black group also named the Crickets) and after the initial shock of seeing some skinny White kids, the audience totally got into it. Perhaps the most glaring omission in the film is the near-complete absence of Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, who rocketed to fame after their Amateur Night performance. One hopes that recent legal battles between HBO, which produced The Apollo, and the Jackson estate over Leaving Neverland, the controversial HBO documentary alleging sexual abuse by Jackson, had nothing to do with that decision.

Other notable facts, such as that the Apollo was for a long time the only theater in New York that hired Black stagehands and was the largest employer of African-American theater workers in the United States, are not explored.

In the segment about Billie Holiday, we hear how her career was launched at Amateur Night in 1935 and then it switches to speaking about her performing the politically-charged "Strange Fruit" on the Apollo stage, which actually happened four years later, just after she first performed it at the integrated Cafe Society club in New York's West Village. But the way it plays out in the film, it's not very clear that these are two different events.

But with all that said, what the film does do brilliantly is bring to light how what was happening inside the Apollo reflected what was also happening outside on the streets of Harlem. Whether it was the era of the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights protests, the riots in the streets, or today's too often tragic headlines, the songs, the jokes and the dancing were all a way of responding to those events. From Holiday's "Strange Fruit" to James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," Williams shows us the historical backdrop through clips on the actual streets of Harlem of those times. A 1940s film clip of comedienne Jackie "Moms" Mabley includes a bit where clownish policemen are chasing a Black man while she's telling a joke reminds us—as do Coates' words during the stage reading—that the police overreach of today is not anything new. As Williams himself has said, "Things have changed, but not changed. It's the same story." But countering that is what the performances, as well as the opportunities spawned by the Amateur Nights, have meant to the people on stage, backstage, and in the audience to bring hope, to cope with, and to fight to change the status quo. This comes from interviews with all those people, including an inspiring segment of a young girl coming from Ohio just to take her shot performing on Amateur Night. We come to see the Apollo as a symbol of pride, a monument to overcoming struggle, and of course, a home to some of the greatest talent America has given to the world. And the question comes up more than once in the film as to whether the theater can remain a vital part of African-American life, or is it destined to be merely stand as a tribute to its past status.

We had a chance to have a brief conversation with Roger Ross Williams about the film and future projects.

Documentary: I was expecting that the producers would be after just a typical hagiography with lots of clips of performances and interviews reminiscing about the Apollo. And for you, coming off of American Jail, where you used the prison system as a lens to tell a political and social history of African-Americans, I had to wonder: "Why Roger Ross Williams?" But as soon as the film started, I totally got what you saw in wanting to make it.

ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: Exactly. Because the Apollo is really about how we use music and art to lift ourselves out of the legacy of slavery and the reality of segregation. That's what happened on that stage. So, for me, this was a very, very political film. I always thought about this film through the context of what was happening in Harlem and what was happening in America for Black people. The music on that stage was reflecting the reality of where we were in this country. On that stage at the Apollo, we are in dialogue with our community about our struggles, our triumphs, our feelings of loss—and that's all happening through the music. When Billie Holiday stood on that stage singing "Strange Fruit" in the Harlem community, it was a very powerful moment—it was a protest song.

And imagine what was going on outside those doors—Black people couldn't even shop in the stores there in their own communities. Literally, people were being hunted and hung in America. And even the subversiveness in the Big Band era—how sharply dressed, finely tuned Black men threatened the status quo and what America thought Black people were with their Italian suits. And beyond to the power of the rallying cry of James Brown in 1968, one of the most tumultuous years in America. The Apollo has always been the place where we have expressed who were are and where we are. And that was how I wanted to tell the story from the beginning.

D: In the 2018 documentary Blue Note: Beyond the Notes, I thought they made the strong point that really all Black music reflects the struggle.

RRW: Absolutely. My favorite line in [my] movie is when Ta-Nehisi Coates says that our music is so beautiful that even those with their boots on our neck can't help but sing along. The power in the struggle, the realness in Black music and culture here in this country that we express so powerfully and beautifully has infected the world. It has changed the world. And that's amazing. And a lot of that happened on that stage.

It was kind of towards the end of the "chitlin' circuit" [the collection of venues across America where musicians of color felt welcome during the Jim Crow era], so when these artists got to Harlem, they got to their Mecca, the holy grail, and to their community. There is something in the film when Patti LaBelle says, "I'm singing better than half these White girls out here on the road, but I'm sleeping in my car, in the bus because I couldn't stay at hotels." But when she got to the Apollo she was celebrated, and she felt at home and with her people and community. And that was a beautiful and powerful thing for her.

It was so powerful that White artists flocked to the Apollo, like Paul McCartney, who I thought was being really honest when he said that the first place the Beatles wanted to go when they came to America was the Apollo. And that was, he said, because they had taken that music and sold it back to White audiences. And I was like, "Wow." He said a lot more—that he knows what they did and that they owed those Black artists and culture so much. And like I said, this music literally changed the world.

D: Let's talk a bit about the research you had to do to find footage and other materials in the film.

RRW: The challenge with the footage was that Black people weren't great about documenting and preserving our own history. There's no archive I could go to, not even in the basement of the Apollo with photos, film or videos. Lisa Cortes [Double Play, Precious], the producer, literally had to comb through people's basements. It was like a giant treasure hunt. I was at a party where a friend told me she was friends with Pigmeat Markham's granddaughter and said, "Maybe you want to talk to her?" And I was, "Yes, I want to talk to her!" So Lisa contacted her and she told us that they have all these ledgers and stuff that was her grandfather's, and Lisa wound up going up to this housing project in the  Bronx and found all this stuff. Also, the granddaughter of Leo Brecher, the other owner of the Apollo along with the Shiffmans, contacted me on Facebook. So we went down to Florida and went through these crumbling pages of photographs—like the collages you see in the film, are from the Brecher family that no one had ever archived. Some of the Shiffman cards [the film features index cards on which the Shiffmans kept records of how much artists were paid, how well they were received by audiences, and whether they were difficult to deal with] were in the Apollo collection at the Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC, but not all of them. A lot of those we got directly from the Shiffman family which were just sitting in Frank Shiffman's storage in Florida. This was a massive task. Someone should really collect and archive all this stuff.

When we found the footage of Eartha Kitt, this grainy footage of her performance at the Apollo, it was such a rare find. She did this almost African drum dance and it was like she was speaking directly to her people through it. I think there's something in the way these artists worked to the Harlem audiences that was probably different than the way they would, say, perform to a crossover or mixed audience. The Apollo audience would let you know exactly what they thought, right there and right then. And that's the power of that audience—the call-and-response interaction, the dialogue between the audience and artist that is a direct connection to the Black church. I grew up in the Black church from a family of ministers. I was singing with the choir. And that was all so familiar to me.

D: Related to how you said there is little archiving of Black history, the film and its connection to your bookending it with the staged reading of Coates' Between the World and Me makes one consider how young people are not always aware of or taught about these performers and their importance to that story and their own history. This seems like something you wanted to directly address in the film, to pass this story on to the next generation.

RRW: It was really important to me to not create a stuffy old historical film with clips and bites. I wanted to inspire and connect to young people. So when I heard they were going to have this multimedia stage reading of Ta-Nehisi's book, I thought, "This is it, this is the hook." What Ta-Nehisi speaks to is the current state of America, the age of Trayvon Martin, the open season on young Black people in America. You can just be sitting in your living room and they could shoot you; forget about driving your car or walking outside your house. So when I heard Common and Black Thought and Angela Bassett were going to be a part of it that production, I thought this was a way to grab young people and connect them to the past and show how much has not changed—they were shooting unarmed Black men back in the '30s in Harlem and they were rioting about it. And it's happened over and over and over again. And we sing to it and protest it, but we haven't stopped it from happening. They, the young people, are tasked with the challenge to confront racism in America, whether it's through music or activism. This is a continuing struggle, and I wanted them to understand that and connect that to the arts—how important it is to understand the past, and through that we need to find new ways to combat it in the future. That was really key for me.

Everyone knows Aretha Franklin and James Brown, but I think it's more that the young people I've spoken with didn't know the incredible influence they had and what they had to go through to break new ground to lead the way for artists of today, like Pharell Williams. So like James Brown would go against his label and record a live album—the first and greatest live album ever made—at the Apollo. These artists were so groundbreaking on so many levels, and there is a need to educate about that. Like in the film the way you hear about how Ray Charles helped Smokey Robinson—they worked to help each other to be better. There was a camaraderie that we're in this struggle together. I think that that's something we may have somehow lost a little bit nowadays, with everyone on their own, on their phones, right?

Joe Gray, Apollo’s Amateur Night audience warm-up master. Courtesy of HBO

D: To conclude, I was thinking how American Jail and The Apollo might be the first two parts of a possible trilogy of you exploring different subjects through this Black history lens—first prisons and now entertainment. Is that something you're also thinking about? What's next?

RRW: Food. I'm actually doing food next through a Black lens, as you say. I just came from Benin, where I was shooting a new series and filming with Angelique Kidjo. It's a series called High on the Hog, about the history of African-Americans through food. We started in Benin at the beginning of the slave trade, and the culture and food from West Africa that they came with when they were sold into slavery. It's based on the book of that name by Jessica B. Harris, which won the James Beard award this year. I've learned so much that I didn't know about the incredible influence African food has on current trendy, hipster American cuisine. For example, from the greatest slave chef in history, James Hemings, who was Thomas Jefferson's slave chef and had been sent to train in Paris. He brought the modern-day stove to America, macaroni & cheese—all that stuff.

So yes, maybe you're right... and maybe it's more than a trilogy. Maybe I'll just keep going.


The Apollo, an IDA Documentary Award nominee for Best Music Documentary, premieres November 6 on HBO.

Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary. He has written for many publications including National GeographicWiredSan Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman.