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‘The Apollo’ Wins Emmy for Outstanding Documentary

"The Apollo" is HBO's documentary on the historic Apollo Theater by Roger Ross Williams.

The Apollo HBO Apollo Theater

“The Apollo”


The Apollo,” Roger Ross Williams’ documentary on the historic Harlem theater, has won the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Non-Fiction Special.

Williams’ documentary centered on the widespread influence of Harlem’s Apollo Theater, which helped launch the careers of celebrated artists such as Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, and others. Williams, who won an Oscar for directing the short film “Music by Prudence,” spoke about the difficulty of encompassing the storied theater’s history into a concise documentary during a screening in Los Angeles in late 2019.

“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,” he said. “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.”

“The Apollo” squared off against Apple TV+’s “Beastie Boys Story,” Netflix’s Michelle Obama-focused “Becoming” and Facebook-centered “The Great Hack,” and EPIX’s “Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time,” which honed in on the music scene in the Los Angeles neighborhood of the same name. Though “The Apollo” faced fierce competition in the Outstanding Documentary or Non-Fiction Special category, IndieWire’s Ben Travers recently noted that the project could fare well with Emmy voters due to its impressive summation of the theater’s myriad performances over the last century.

“With archival footage of everyone from James Brown to Shirley Chisholm and new interviews with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Smokey Robinson, the film takes on an impossible task — chronicling over 100 years of performances in under 100 minutes — and does right by its immense subject,” Travers said in a recent article predicting the Emmy category’s winner.

The 72nd Primetime Emmys will air on Sunday, September 20 on ABC at 8 p.m. ET. The three-hour event will be hosted by Jimmy Kimmel. Check out IndieWire’s Emmy predictions to get the scoop on which series and stars are expected to win big throughout the event. Follow IndieWire on Twitter and Facebook for all the latest Emmys news, including live updates, as the virtual awards ceremony airs Sunday night.

Check out the full winners list for the Creative Arts Emmys.

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