TFF Review: ‘The Apollo’ Tells the Story of Black Art Therefore the Story of America

Tribeca Film Festival 2019 opened with the premiere of the HBO documentary, The Apollo on April 24. The documentary tells the story of what The Apollo gave to a community and then the world from the jazz age to today.

The movie begins the story perfectly

Roger Ross Williams
Roger Ross Williams Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

The documentary opens with Joe Morton on stage performing in Between the World and Me. The adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book addressing police brutality and racism in America might be a shocking start to a documentary about an iconic venue that might bring words like “music” and “comedy” to some people’s minds. However, the reason why the opening is perfect becomes clear throughout the film.

Soon the movie dives into The Apollo’s start when only white people can go to places like the Cotton Club to get their entertainment. This theater was different in that Black people not only got to show the world if they had talent on stage, but they had a say whether that talent was any good in the audience.

Patti LaBelle, Pharrell Williams, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, and more were interviewed about their time performing at The Apollo, and what the venue means to them. However, the documentary is even more endearing by the other people included that the world might not know.

You’ll unexpectedly be moved by people who love The Apollo

There is “Mr. Apollo” or Billy Mitchell who is the theater’s historian. He takes multiple people on tours around the theater and you get to see the thrill on children’s faces when he points out where Beyoncé and Barack Obama signed on The Apollo’s wall. There is a woman named Eva Isaac who often was front row at the theater and had no problem showing her love for the performers by rubbing up on them.

Although there are joyful clips throughout the film, the movie doesn’t hide from the sad elements of Black American history. One of the earliest performances is of Billie Holiday performing “Strange Fruit” on the iconic stage. We’re told the protest song wasn’t supported by the music industry in fear of offending white southerners. The murder of Malcolm X and how The Apollo was protected by the community during the Harlem riot of 1964 are also included.

You’ll walk away feeling the weight of it all and thankful for it

It becomes clear that The Apollo is a place that Black artists felt free to express themselves in ways at a time they couldn’t walk through the front door or enter a lot of businesses. It’s clear that the theater is still a safe place to perform art talking about racial injustice in this country.

Director Roger Ross Williams could have easily rested on the amazing clips of iconic musical, comedic, or dancing performances. However, he told a much deeper story weaving them all together with the people behind the theater and history in an amazing way.

The documentary accomplished a huge task trying to sum up what an iconic place The Apollo is and what it has offered. This story is the story of Black art, which is really a reflection of America in all of its complexity. You will walk away feeling the weight of all of that and be thankful for it.

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