The famed Apollo Theater's neon sign shines over 125th Street in New York's Harlem neighborhood. (Courtesy of HBO via AFI Docs Film Festival)
The famed Apollo Theater's neon sign shines over 125th Street in New York's Harlem neighborhood. (Courtesy of HBO via AFI Docs Film Festival)

Eighty-five years of African American entertainment come to life in the documentary “The Apollo,” produced by HBO Documentaries.

Helmed by award-winning director Roger Ross Williams, the film covers just about everything viewers want to know when it comes to the landmark venue on 125th Street in Harlem.

The film had two screenings last week in the D.C. area, one at the AFI Docs Film Festival and another at the National Archives in a special collaboration with the March on Washington Film Festival.

At both screenings, attendees could be seen moving their heads to jazz, R&B and hip-hop coming through the screen.

Archival footage and contemporary interviews tell the significant history and stories about the Apollo Theater, regaling with such tales as Ella Fitzgerald fearing she’d be booed off the stage when she made her Apollo debut on Amateur Night.

In its early days, the Apollo was one of the few big theaters in the country where Black entertainers could perform.

Historian Billy Mitchell, an Apollo tour guide and ambassador, attended the National Archives screening and said his love and passion for the theater cannot be contained.

“We are the epicenter of Black culture. We are the truth,” said Mitchell, who has been a part of the Apollo for 54 years. “No one should tell our story but us so we can leave this legacy to our great-great-grandchildren. The ancestors are always in that building.”

The Apollo struggled through periods of hard times, primarily from not being able to compete with larger entertainment venues. An investment by businessman and former Manhattan borough President Percy Sutton were no match for the economic realities that challenged the Apollo.

In 1983, the theater received state and city landmark status. In 1991, the Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc., was established as a private, not-for-profit organization to manage, fund and oversee programming for the Apollo Theater. Today, the Apollo executive producer is Kamilah Forbes.

“It’s more than a venue of entertainment,” Forbes said during a post-screening question-and-answer panel at the National Archives. “It is a place where culture convenes. It is home, it is church. It is one of the largest African American performing arts institutions. The importance of the preservation and the elevation of our Black institutions is critical.”

Former Rep. Charles Rangel is seen in the film recalling the importance of the Apollo and Harlem during his childhood. That part of New York was inhabited by White immigrants, then was later occupied by Blacks. Rangel’s remembrances are important for viewers to fully understand how the Apollo evolved through the decades.

“For 85 years the history of the Apollo is intricately connected with American history,” said co-producer Lisa Cortés after the screening. “It’s a place where important cultural conversations and movements can take place and have global impact.”

The documentary is framed by the 2018 Apollo reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bestseller “Between Me and the World.” Positioned artfully in the documentary, the reading shows how far things have come for society, but still, much more remains to be done.

The production, a joint effort between the Apollo and the Kennedy Center, was read by a star-studded group of entertainers.

Angie Gates, director of the DC Government Office Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment, was in the National Archives audience. She was the first African American to be general manager at the District’s Warner Theatre and could relate to the massive job in maintaining a historic theater.

“To watch this story about the Apollo was just amazing,” Gates said. “Just to see how careers started, to broaden to an educational component, then to see what the theater is doing today is historic.”

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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