Harlem’s Apollo Theatre: Arts hub and civil rights landmark

The Apollo Theater is seen during the world premiere of the HBO documentary film ‘The Apollo, part of the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, on Apr 24, 2019 in New York. (AFP pic)

The globally recognised Harlem music venue that has launched career after career, borne witness to sociocultural revolution and hosted artists, writers, comedians and musicians for decades has been lionised in film form.

“The Apollo,” the documentary that kicked off New York’s Tribeca Film Festival late Wednesday, centres on the celebrated hall’s rise from a burlesque club opened in 1914 to a starmaker from the 1930s on – and its pivotal role as a refuge for black artists blazing artistic trails while defying racial oppression.

The Apollo today remains a lodestar of opportunity, inclusiveness and pride, said Tribeca co-founder and actor Robert De Niro ahead of the documentary’s premiere.

“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,” the veteran performer well known for his unabashed criticism of US President Donald Trump said, to applause.

Speaking to AFP on the red carpet, de Niro — who spearheaded the Tribeca festival’s launch in 2002 in a bid to help revitalise Manhattan in the wake of September 11 – noted the significance of the documentary’s premiere at the very venue it celebrates, calling it “the perfect place for the opening.”

“The Apollo is New York.”

 ‘A landmark’ 

The film, which will air on the US cable network HBO this fall, traces the Harlem institution’s history as a petri dish for artistic innovation, particularly in the black community.

Among them is James Brown, the Godfather of Soul and a regular at the Apollo, who recorded one of music’s most lauded live albums at the theatre.

The film highlights in particular his barrier-smashing 1968 funk record that posed to Americans something of a challenge: “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

“The Apollo is tradition. It is a landmark,” legendary singer Smokey Robinson told AFP prior to the screening. “It’s some place that should always be left standing.”

“It’s one of the foundations and a great part of the history of black music.”

The film explores the venue’s pivotal role in countless careers over the 20th century, including a memorable vignette that sees a young, shy Ella Fitzgerald forget the words to her song, resorts to scat – and go on to become the Queen of Jazz not long after her gig on the prominent Amateur Night that began in 1934.

It also watches a teenage Lauryn Hill go from pushing through a number despite boos – the Apollo crowd is famously tough – to bringing the audience to its knees as one of the preeminent female voices in hip hop.

But while the documentary concentrates on the music – through the Apollo’s doors walked greats including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Duke Ellington, Will Smith and Snoop Dogg – the film also views the venue as a lens into the tumultuous history of Harlem, an epicentre of civil rights organising and riots over the persecution of black Americans.

“This is the story of African American struggle and culture,” said documentary director Roger Ross Williams, donning Gucci sunglasses and an iridescent suit by Harlem’s beloved designer Dapper Dan.

“We use music to lift ourselves out of oppression,” the filmmaker told AFP.

“This is the place where everything happened.”

Breeding greatness 

The cultural weight of the theatre inspired one of the Apollo’s most famous guests in recent history, Barack Obama, to break into song while visiting in 2012.

“I’m… so in love with you,” the then-president crooned in his brief rendition of the Al Green classic “Let’s Stay Together.”

But while revering the institution’s past, “The Apollo” also considers its future as a living artistic hotbed, rather than a shrine to the legacies it created.

“It’s not just Apollo history or Harlem history, it’s American history, at a time when we need to acknowledge where greatness comes from, and how we can inform important conversations for the future,” Lisa Cortes, one of the film’s producers, told AFP.

The venue – which went through a rough patch in the 1970s that included bankruptcy, before becoming a state and city landmark in 1983 – is now a nonprofit, foundation-run theatre owned by the state of New York.

Last year the Apollo showcased the work of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, adapting for the stage his seminal book on being black in the United States, “Between the World and Me,” a production the documentary follows throughout.

For Coates, who is interviewed in the film, the Apollo belongs to black Americans, its role in US history indelible, its continued impact on culture unwavering.

“Even the people that hold you under their boot can’t help but sing along,” he says.