2019 Tribeca Film Festival: The Apollo Provides a Soul-Stirring Tribute to the Iconic Sanctuary for Blackness

HBO’s The Apollo
Photo: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

The 18th Tribeca Film Festival invited its attendees to the beautiful blackness of Harlem for its opening night film, The Apollo. Naturally, the documentary screening was held at its namesake theater.

I had the honor of attending opening night, and by extension, I had the honor of stepping into The Apollo Theater for the very first time in my life. Following the natural chaos known as the red carpet, I made an intention to take a moment and breathe in the spirits of each black performer and of each black patron who had found a joyful safe space there.

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Then it was time for the long-awaited documentary’s curtain rise.

Per The Apollo’s press release:

The film chronicles the 85-year history and legacy of the famed New York City landmark, The Apollo Theater. Directed by Academy and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, the documentary showcases archival footage, music, comedy and dance performances plus behind-the-scenes moments with the theater’s staff as well as interviews with artists including Patti LaBelle, Pharrell Williams, Smokey Robinson, and Jamie Foxx. The stage production of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me frames the film and the way in which The Apollo explores the current struggle of black lives in America and the role that art plays in that struggle.

Documentarian and helmer Williams not only gifts his audience with limited-access archival footage, but offers an impressive invitation to the core of the theater—the Harlem residents who surround it. Accompanied by a beautiful score composed by Grammy winner Robert Glasper, a symphony of slow-motion frames showcases the faces of hardened residents in a gorgeous and humanizing display. You’re so close, you can see their pores. Clearly intentional.

A view of the signage at the “The Apollo” screening during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival on April 24, 2019 in New York City.
Photo: Dia Dipasupil (Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
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The Apollo Theater has proudly boasted that it is the home of where “stars are born and legends are made.” And rightfully so, as the theater—opened as The Apollo in 1934—served as the sanctuary against white-only establishments in New York City such as The Cotton Club. The Apollo provides an inside-look into many original performances such as young Ella Fitzgerald’s incomparable scat, Billie Holiday’s sobering rendition of “Strange Fruit,” the lithe movements of a sexy Eartha Kitt, the hilarious comedic stylings of Red Foxx, and the amazing Motown revue featuring footage from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Supremes, little Stevie Wonder, and The Temptations.

Plus, there are special treats such as the theater’s first manager, Frank Schiffman and his infamous theater cards, which (hilariously) assessed each performer who graced the stage. Or Mr. Apollo himself, the eccentric Billy Mitchell, as he takes curious fans—young and old alike—on a tour backstage, including the “Wall of Legends.”

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“I hope [the audience] learns who and what The Apollo is,” Smokey Robinson told The Root. “Because it is tradition and should always be. It should always be standing. Let ‘em tear down everything else around it, [but] let this keep standing. Especially for black music.”

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The moment that me and CeCe [Winans] were standing on the side of the stage getting ready to be introduced, [we were] just looking at each other and said, ‘Can you believe this?’” BeBe Winans told The Root about his fondest memory performing on the iconic stage with his sister.

And of course, there was Amateur Night, where aspiring stars held their breaths before rubbing that Tree (Stump) of Hope and standing in the spotlight toward the 1,500-odd seats filled with leering audience members.

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As noted in the documentary, people came to The Apollo Theater on Amateur Night to boo folks—a 13-year-old Lauryn Hill performing a cover of The Jackson’ 5's “Who’s Loving You” can attest to that—akin to a tough-love hazing on campus (an apt analogy as the theater was repeatedly referred to as “a campus” in the film). On the flip-side, there were jaw-dropping moments like Bianca Graham’s cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing.” Williams grants the audience with a backstage pass to it all.

Bianca Graham - I Have Nothing (Whitney Houston) Live @ Apollo Theater Harlem, NYC / YouTube

We often talk about The Apollo’s legacy,” Jonelle Procope, president and CEO of The Apollo, told The Root. “It was a place of opportunity. It created opportunities for black artists who couldn’t perform anywhere else—people say to me ‘Oh my god, it launched the careers of all of these legends!’ When they were on The Apollo stage, they were just performers who wanted the opportunity. So, fast forward—that’s what The Apollo’s about, that’s what’s in our DNA. And today, we’re still pushing the envelope, creating opportunities for emerging talent and what we want to do now is to establish a 21st century canon for the performing arts that focuses on the African and African-American diaspora narrative.”

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President and Chief Executive Officer of the Apollo Theater Jonelle Procope speaks at the “The Apollo” screening during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival on April 24, 2019 in New York City.
Photo: Dia Dipasupil (Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

“It’s the beginning of it all,” Pharrell muses in the first few frames of the documentary.

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And then there was the end. The doc chronicles the decline of the beloved theater, as well as the restoration by Percy E. Sutton through his firm Inner City Broadcasting and the subsequent purchase by the city of New York (which catapulted the birth of the non-profit Apollo Theater Foundation). From footage of the marquee displaying those dreading two words, “The End,” to the overjoyed faces of Harlem residents during the theater’s triumphant comeback, The Apollo takes the audience on the very emotional rollercoaster fans and founders alike were faced with riding.

“In these disturbing times, when the administration is promoting divisiveness and racism, we’re making a statement by being here tonight that we reject it,” he said. “No, you don’t! Not in this house, not on this stage!” Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro exclaimed onstage during the opening remarks with his festival partner, Jane Rosenthal.

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Co-founder, CEO, and executive chair of Tribeca Enterprises Jane Rosenthal, and Robert De Niro speak at the “The Apollo” screening during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival on April 24, 2019 in New York City.
Photo: Dia Dipasupil (Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Not on this stage, indeed. In fact, what does happen on the stage is a reclaiming of power by black bodies who have faced—and still face—the struggles of oppression, through the unrelenting force of art. Along with providing a much-needed history lesson, The Apollo invites its audience along the journey of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, adapted for the stage by Kamilah Forbes. Coates’ acclaimed book asks (himself and us) the question, “What do you tell your black son in the age of Trayvon Martin?” Whether it’s Morocco Omari (Empire) or Angela Bassett, Williams gives the audience a sneak peek into the visceral process of a black actor reciting the rage, pain and reckoning of their ancestors, their family, their friends, and themselves.

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Above all, The Apollo was black. “Black black black black black,” as expressed in a rehearsal of a passage from Coates’ book.

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Following the screening, singer Alice Smith took the stage, providing the audience with a performance of two songs, including an intoxicating cover of “I Put a Spell On You.”

Alice Smith performs at the “The Apollo” screening during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival on April 24, 2019 in New York City.
Photo: Dia Dipasupill (Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festiva)
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The entire experience rendered me speechless. After Smith sauntered offstage, I sat in my chair digesting the magnificence I just experienced and thought, “Wow.”

“I don’t care if you’re black or white, you can’t watch the story of our struggle, hear the beauty of our music, and not feel something,” Williams told The Root.

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With The Apollo, you will feel something. You will feel everything.

The Apollo will be released on HBO later this year.

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About the author

Tonja Renée Stidhum

Staff Writer, Entertainment at The Root. Sugar, spice & everything rice. Equipped with the uncanny ability to make a Disney reference and a double entendre in the same sentence.