The Apollo - Documentary
by Kathia Woods
Black Theaters saved lives and preserved our culture. No Theater did that more than the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The Apollo tells the history of this American landmark and the folks that kept the lights on.
Like so many venues The Apollo Theater was white owned but showcased black talent. This documentary chronicles the history of this iconic theater and interviews not only the legends that graced its stage but the people behind the scenes that made it work. In this current age, it’s a staple tourist stop and still a beckon of black culture.
I liked that this documentary not only interviewed stars such as Gladys Night and the Pips, Patty Labelle and Smokey Robinson but folks like Billy Mitchell and Joe Gray. Apollo’s tour director/historian Billy Mitchell is the oracle of the Apollo. He not only gives the tours but banters with tourist making it a memorable visit. Joe Gray, who went from stagehand to warming up the crowd for Amateur night for thirty years, is the embodiment of the Apollo spirit. Anyone can go from an unknown to star.
I am grateful that this film educated us on Ralph Cooper. Mr. Cooper was the creator of Apollo’s famous amateur night. It also showed how black performers had to work twice as hard for half the money. Documentaries like The Apollo are essential because there is a whole generation that isn’t aware of the history of this theater. We often think of discrimination and segregation when it comes to the south. Many are ignorant of the fact that most of the cabarets in Harlem were white owned with black talent in a black neighborhood and that no matter what economic standing blacks could not patronize those clubs. The Apollo was one of the few places that blacks could enjoy.
I am grateful that our point of view informed this movie. Many a time, our history is written from a white perspective; this often creates a revisionist history that is not the case with The Apollo. Director Roger Ross Williams ensured that all voices were present. He even included the historical Hotel Theresa.
Another truth about this documentary is that it showcases all the challenges of owning the venue. Financial struggles of the seventies to the current gentrification of 125th street. I’m glad it was honestly discussed in this film.
It also highlights that the Apollo, unlike any other venue in the world, helps celebrate and uplift our black entertainers. The passing of James Brown, Prince and Aretha Franklin were all commemorated at the Apollo.
Ta-Nehisi Coates author/journalist work Between the World and Me brought his best-selling book and stage play to the Apollo. He knew that the Apollo Theater was the best place to showcase this play. He understood that the community would not only understand this work but support it financially.
The Apollo Theater is more than a place for entertainment but a space of community gathering. The theater provides an atmosphere to have fun but also an environment to have uncomfortable conversations. That is continuously shown in this documentary. In the end, I hope that this movie motivates you to visit The Apollo when you’re in New York.
Scale- This is movie gets a strong 8.