Wednesday, November 6, 2019

DOC NYC Shortlist Spotlight: The Apollo

In advance of DOC NYC 2019, which begins November 6th, I’m making my way through some of the contenders on the annual Features Shortlist, which selects the films likeliest to contend for the Oscar for Best Documentary.

The Apollo
Directed by Roger Ross Williams
DOC NYC Screenings

When it comes to movies, the theaters in which they are shown don’t necessarily make the experience. Some cineplexes have history, but they don’t compare to the importance of a venue in which live performances occur. Particularly for marginalized communities who at certain points in time weren’t free to perform wherever they liked, a theater can hold special significance, emblematic of a sense of opportunity that those who got to benefit from or experience it may have appreciated without having the full knowledge of just how much it would mean years later and long into their careers.

This documentary spotlights the Apollo Theater, a staple of Harlem in New York City that gave birth to many successful musicians. As a place where African-Americans could feel comfortable performing, it was a starting point for famed figures such as Dionne Warwick and Louis Armstrong. Over time, it evolved into a space where its own roots as somewhere where being black was okay were explored through the adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.” Through it all, its legendary Amateur Night, a crucial testing ground for future talent, has endured.

This film does double duty as a historical chronicle of all the people who have performed at the Apollo and as a layered narrative about the fragility of being black in America. One iconic moment that really sets the tone for this film is a clip of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit,” a song about racism and lynching, defying notions of normalcy and not rocking the boat to proclaim something deeply meaningful to her. That courageous choice decades ago has shaped the makeup of the Apollo today, which now serves as a platform to call out that which cannot be denied by society yet somehow continues to persist.

Among the most rewarding aspects of this informative and involving documentary are the interviews with musicians who eagerly recall how they felt when they first performed at the Apollo. This film has a wonderful rhythm to it, one that ebbs and flows with the reality of the times, which includes blatant and unapologetic racist policies in its early years and unpunished discrimination and police violence in the present. This film makes a strong and effective case for the Apollo as a sanctuary of sorts, ensuring one place to thrive for a community in need of a space to express itself.


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