The 18th annual Tribeca Film Festival opened with Roger Ross Williams’ documentary “The Apollo” at the iconic uptown venue which performers and Harlem community members call “home.”
“You can feel the history, the echo of the entertainers,” Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Robert De Niro said in a speech before the film. “In this administration, during these disturbing times of promoting racism, tonight, we reject it. No you don’t, not here, not on this stage.”
In “The Apollo” documentary, an HBO production, Williams chronicles the venue’s 85-year-history, moving between historic and present-day footage to show how far the country has come in terms of celebrating diversity, while reminding viewers how far America still has to go. In the past, The Apollo was the only venue in New York City to allow black performers. That’s no longer the case, of course, but Williams’ film argues that times are still hard. Williams put this message in perspective through behind-the-scenes content following a stage adaptation of Ta Nehisi-Coates’ book “Between the World and Me,” written as a father-to-son letter about how to live as a black man in a climate of police brutality and discrimination.
The film includes interviews with cultural icons such as Smokey Robinson, Pharrell Williams, and Patti LaBelle, and also features live footage of concerts from artists such as Billie Holiday, Public Enemy, and Lauryn Hill.
“The Apollo is home and it’s not only home to Harlem residents, it’s a home and a place of planting seeds for great talent that has gone on to influence the world and shape minds and hearts through the art that’s been created here,” said one of the film’s producers, Lisa Cortés. “Oftentimes it’s come out of pain, but that pain has been used to elevate and to use in the best way to change minds and spirits about the human potential. It’s a temple of black genius.”
During the film, cheers and applause could be heard throughout the audience, especially during a scene where Barack Obama visits the Apollo. The film sparked laughter during live footage of performances from Richard Pryor and Chris Rock and was followed by a powerful cinematic moment where Rock describes how African-Americans “make jokes out of struggling.”
“The Apollo is about community, this is the town hall, the Apollo is a church,” said director Roger Ross Williams. “It’s the story of black people in America, it’s 85 years of history from Ella Fitzgerald to all of the artists who grace this stage.”
Central Park’s Tavern on the Green hosted the after party, where artists and moviegoers alike dined on New York Strips, drank cocktails, and mingled. Lily Rabe (“American Horror Story”) and Hamish Linklater (“Fargo”) chatted over martinis while Tribeca judge Angela Bassett (“9-1-1”, “Black Panther”) made an appearance and Executive Vice President of Tribeca Paula Weinstein posed for photos.