The Apollo Tribeca Film Fest 2019The Apollo Tribeca Film Fest 2019

The Apollo Premiere Celebrated 85 Years of Black Entertainment

By Allie Waxman

Smokey Robinson, Leslie Uggams and more walked the red carpet in praise of Roger Ross Williams’ film about the beloved Harlem theater.


Opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival celebrated the beloved Apollo Theater and the world premiere of the documentary that chronicles the cultural institution’s rich history. Helmed by Oscar and Emmy-winning director Roger Ross Wiliams, The Apollo incorporates archival footage and contemporary interviews to contextualize the theater’s past and examine the state of race in America. Told in part through the staging of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Williams grapples with the challenges facing black lives in America and the role the Apollo played in providing an artistic home for black entertainers for decades. “It’s 85 years of the history of black music and black entertainment in this country,” the director remarked about the theater. “We used music and art to lift ourselves out of oppression.”

The Apollo Tribeca Film Fest 2019

Performers who have appeared at the Apollo echoed Williams’ sentiment. Smokey Robinson, who made his professional debut at the Apollo on Ray Charles’ show, described what he felt when he walked into the theater for the first time. “We walked in the front door and there was a mural on the wall of all these wonderful black artists who had preceded us, so I said, ‘One of these days I want to be on this wall.’ We finally made it and I was very happy.”

Leslie Uggams, who first performed at the Apollo when she was 9, recalled that the theater is where she honed her craft. “In our community as I was growing up, this was a big deal because all the great stars would come and perform here. It was like our Radio City Music Hall of Harlem. For people to get an idea of what it was like and what we’re doing now, and for young people to get a chance to really understand what our theater’s all about, this is very exciting.”

Gospel singer Bebe Winans acknowledged how the Apollo created opportunities for black artists and enabled them to change people’s lives. “It opened the door for so many people and so much art to be placed into the world,” Winans observed. “To uplift them, to hold them when the tears were falling. It’s not just a building, it’s the soul of America.”

The Apollo Tribeca Film Fest 2019

“You think of Harlem and you think of the Apollo and what it represents,” festival co-founder Robert De Niro noted, reinforcing the importance of preserving cultural institutions. “The thought of it not being here would be unimaginable.” Tribeca co-founder Jane Rosenthal added that “the Apollo has brought together community and diverse voices for years since it first opened its doors. To be able to sustain that and still be relevant in our culture, in our community, is extraordinary.”

If you could go back in time, who would you like to see play the Apollo?

Robert De Niro

“Billie Holiday.”  

Leslie Uggams

“I have to go back to the first person I worked with which was Louis Armstrong.”

Smokey Robinson

“I would probably pick Jackie Wilson because he was my number one singing idol as a kid growing up.”

Kamilah Forbes, Executive Director, Apollo Theater

“Bob Marley.”

Jeanne Elfant Festa, Producer

“Stevie Wonder. I love Stevie Wonder and he amplifies everything about the Apollo Theater; he uses his art to bring people together.”

Lisa Cortés, Producer

“Ella Fitzgerald when she realized she was not going to dance, but was going to sing, and in turn started scatting at the very first amateur night in 1934."

Cassidy Hartmann, Producer

“Billie Holiday performing ‘Strange Fruit’ at the Apollo, despite the fact that her record label and the owners of the Apollo didn’t want her to sing that song.”

More Photos From the Premiere

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