2019 MFF: Black history lives in ‘The Apollo’
By ANTOINETTE MARTN
For Montclair Local
The visceral style and radiance of James Brown, proclaiming he’s black and proud.
The way Billie Holiday clips off the ends of words with a cold passion when singing “Strange Fruit,” the 1930s song about lynching.
The flight of Gregory Hines’ tap-dancing feet, defying any force that tries to hold him down.
Art and politics.
Black excellence and originality in the context of historical oppression.
These are the essential subjects of Emmy-winning director Roger Ross Williams’ documentary, “The Apollo,” which delivers the history of Harlem’s 85-year-old performance theater. The film ties the historic struggle of black people to the issue of race today by intercutting archival footage of the Apollo with contemporary footage of the creation of the Apollo’s 2018 stage version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, “Between the World and Me.” Coates’ work, which won a National Book Award in 2015, is framed as a letter to his 15-year-old son coming of age as a black man.
The movie screened on Saturday night, May 4, at the Wellmont Theater, in the Montclair Film Festival. It also appeared earlier at Tribeca Film Festival.
“This movie is really about the struggle of black people and how we used music and art to
lift ourselves out of a life of oppression,” Williams said during a Q&A session after the screening. The film will appear on HBO in the fall.
Working with vast, largely untapped theater archives, Williams said, he purposely chose a “political” framework for the film. “Everything that didn’t serve the political” — i.e., didn’t illuminate the struggle and triumph of black people through the arts — saw the sharp edge of his director’s scalpel, Williams said.
Actor Joe Morton, a former longtime Montclair resident, is the opening voice of the film, reading onstage from “Between the World and Me.” (Montclair alert: Savion Glover, also a sometime Montclair resident, is featured in a segment on tap dance).
At one point in the film, an Apollo foundation director talks about black artistic excellence being so irresistible that “even the people who hold us under their boot can’t help but sing along.”
Members of the audience wanted to talk to Williams about the imprint the “boot” of oppression left — and still leaves — on black lives. One woman asked why Williams included archival information that highlighted how little major black artists were paid at the Apollo — at least before 1960s star Gladys Knight, among others, put her foot down. She wanted to know why there wasn’t more explicit focus on “exploitation” in the film.
“The exploitation of black people is nothing new,” Williams replied. “Four hundred years and it continues to go on.” He said that he did include an interview with former Apollo owner Frank Schiffman’s grandson, in which Bobby Schiffman tells how the old man contrived to open big shows in the 1960s and ’70s on the day welfare checks were due, so he could draw an audience from the neighborhood. “There was a bit of a push to take that stuff out,” he said, “but it was real. It belongs in there.” The film makes clear that the Apollo was a money-losing operation for many years before it went bankrupt in 1977, eventually reopening as a New York State-owned entity.
Jennica Canmona, a film-goer from West Orange, asked Williams about current gentrification in Harlem around the theater. “If I visit today, I’m not sure I’m going to a place that represents my people.”
Williams told her that the Apollo has “stayed true to black artists” throughout its history. He cited the production of Coates’ work as evidence that that “is what the Apollo will continue to do.”