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‘The Apollo’ Documents the ‘Heartbeat of Black America’

"How do you take 85 years and sort of whittle it down to 90 minutes?" said Roger Ross Williams. "Really difficult task, right?"

The Apollo HBO Apollo Theater

“The Apollo”


Whittling 85 years of history into one 90-minute film is a difficult task — and in fact the production company behind HBO’s documentary “The Apollo,” about the famed Harlem theater, had worked on the film for nearly a decade before director Roger Ross Williams came on board. But as an NYU student who regularly attended Amateur Night during college — and more broadly, someone who appreciated the history and sense of community the theater provided — he couldn’t resist.

“When White Horse Pictures … came to me and said, ‘We want to make this film about The Apollo,’ they had been working on it for seven years,” he told the audience following a Los Angeles screening of the film as part of the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series. “Many different directors had tried to make this film. But when they came to me, I was like, ‘Of course I’m gonna.’ I jumped on it because this place holds a — not only in my heart, but many people — the Apollo Theater to me is like a church. And it’s sacred ground.” Watch the IDA video of Williams’ interview about “The Apollo” here:

Of course, the Apollo Theater’s vaunted place in history was also what made the project so intimidating.

“How do you take 85 years and sort of whittle it down to 90 minutes? Really difficult task, right? So I started thinking about what does our music mean to us as black people? And what is the stage of the Apollo representing? And no matter if it was Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruit,’ which was a protest song at the time that was banned in radio stations, all the way through to James Brown and ‘I’m Black & I’m Proud,’ which was a rallying cry in 1968, a tumultuous [time] here in America. Every act on that stage speaks to who we are as black people, where we are, our place in America, our struggle. And so that was a way to tell the story — to really do it through what was going on in Harlem, what was going on in America for black people, and how that’s reflected in the music.”

What helped the film really gel together was when Williams got word of a staging of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Pulitzer finalist and National Book Award-winning “Between the World and Me.”

“For me, Ta-Nehisi Coates is really the voice of my generation. ‘Between the World and Me’ is a seminal book. And so that was it. That was the hook,” he said. “That was the way to really connect young people, to connect the story of everything that went on in the history of the Apollo, the 85 years to the present day, and show how much things have not changed.”

The Apollo Theater has stayed important and relevant even when it was closed and slid into decline, and that’s ultimately what Williams wanted to explore in his film.

“It’s the heartbeat of Harlem, but it’s also the heartbeat of black America. And so it’s a town hall. All the political candidates throughout, from Clinton to the current political camps, they all go there to talk to the black community. Maybe not Trump, but everyone else. But it’s a town hall,” he said. “And it’s also the place where you go when one of the great artists dies. So people would go there. I love the scene of Aretha Franklin, when she died, of people just dancing in front of the Apollo and playing music and bringing flowers. It’s this place that the community feels really connected to.”

The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.

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