'The Apollo' Director Talks Iconic Venue's Impact on Black Culture and the Bet Obama Took to Sing Al Green

Apollo Marquee - Smokey Robinson - Publicity - Split - H 2019
Courtesy of HBO

Roger Ross? Williams reveals his personal connection to the 85-year-old theater's amateur night, the scramble to find historical materials lost during the years when the building had to shut its doors and the major barrier the Academy's doc branch just surpassed.

Roger Ross Williams' HBO documentary The Apollo tracks the complicated 85-year legacy of the Harlem theater via archival materials and contemporary footage, including a 2018 staging of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. Williams, an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' documentary branch governor, spoke about his personal connection to the Apollo's amateur night, the scramble to find historical materials lost during the years from 1976 to 1984 when the building had to shut its doors and the major barrier the Academy's documentary branch just cleared.

Had you grown up going to the Apollo or watching Showtime at the Apollo on TV?

Yes, when I was an NYU student. The first time I went to the Apollo was amateur night. What blew me away was that interaction between the audience and the artists. That call and response where the audience is part of the show reminded me of growing up in the black church and that call and response that happens between the pastor and the congregation. I grew up singing in the choir and my father was a minister, so that was really familiar to me. So when I was approached to do this film, of course I jumped at it.

How did you get the archival material that's in the film?

Because the Apollo was at one point abandoned for years, the basement was full of sewage. A lot of those tapes and that footage had gotten destroyed, or scattered, and it was really hard to find. [Producer] Lisa Cortes was in the Bronx at [entertainer] Pigmeat Markham's granddaughter's apartment going through boxes. It was like a giant treasure hunt to gather that stuff. And it was a multiyear process so, along the way, there are moments where you're like, "Oh my God, I just found this amazing footage of James Brown singing "I'm Black and I'm Proud." A daughter of Leo Brecher, one of the owners of the Apollo, saw that I was working on this and contacted me through Facebook. And then there's these meticulous cards [kept by Apollo co-founder and manager Frank Schiffman] of how much performers made, how a certain [artist] talked too much or had a great show. When we got those cards, I thought, this is such an incredible device to showcase not only the talent but also how much people were being paid and how much black people felt like a commodity. What's amazing about the Apollo was that, as black people, no matter what circumstances we were in, we used our music, our art and our talent to lift ourselves out of the legacy of slavery and segregation. That, for me, is the theme of the film.

How did you arrive at using the Apollo's staging of Ta-Nehisi Coates' book as a framing device?

I was struggling to find a way to make the film current and relevant and not just be a history lesson. Kamilah Forbes, a college friend of Ta-Nehisi and an incredible theater director, mentioned, "Oh yeah, we're going to mount Between the World and Me as this multimedia stage performance." And I was like, "Oh my God, I've got to follow this process." This is the hook, this takes the viewer through the story of the Apollo and connects it to the struggle of black people in America today.

The footage of Barack Obama singing those few notes of an Al Green song is a fantastic moment.

What you don't see in the documentary, because we cut it out for time, was there were two stagehands backstage who bet Obama. They said, "We dare you to go out there and sing." And he's like, "You know what? I'm going to take your dare and I'm going to do it."

The Academy set some ambitious inclusion goals geared toward 2020, like doubling the number of female members and people of color. How's that going in the documentary branch?

We are ahead of the rest of the Academy in our 2020 initiatives. This year, for the first time, the documentary branch reached gender parity. That has been a focus of mine since I became governor. Women power documentary filmmaking, whether they're directors or producers. I didn't understand how the doc branch could not have as many women in it as men. And so, every time I would do a talk, every time I would reach out to the membership, I'd be like, "Nominate a woman this year." And this year we finally did it.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

The Apollo is among the nominees at the 35th annual International Documentary Association Awards, which recognizes the best in nonfiction storytelling. The ceremony, which will present a best director award for the first time, will be held Dec. 7 at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.