Roger Ross Williams Interview: ‘The Apollo’ director
For Roger Ross Williams, his personal experiences with the Apollo Theater go back to when he was a college student at NYU and he would go the infamous weekly Amateur Night that the theater hosted. “It reminded me of the small town Baptist church where I grew up – my father was a minister and I grew up singing in the choir and there’s that call-and-response with the audience at the Apollo,” he tells us in our recent webchat (watch the exclusive video above). The connection that exists between the audience and the artist at the Apollo is unlike any other institution in the world due to how reminiscent it is of the black church. “The Apollo really is a church, it’s a temple to black art and black achievement.”
Williams’s documentary, “The Apollo,” which was made for HBO, explores the 85-year history of the legendary stage located in the heart of Harlem in New York City from the first Amateur Night, won by Ella Fitzgerald, to the current projects being showcased including a dramatic staging of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, “Between the World and Me.” It also shows how the theater has struggled at times over the years to keep its status as a destination for many artists to perform at.
Williams, an Oscar winner for his short documentary, “Music by Prudence,” in 2009 has explored many subjects in his films but there has always been a constant through line in the material he addresses. “Every documentary I make is personal. It’s a part of me, it’s something that I’m interested in but it’s also pulled from my own personal experiences.” He feels that in order make documentaries, one has to have a passion or personal connection to the subject. “Whether it’s my feelings of alienation in identifying with someone like Prudence Mabhena, or my feelings of rejection of the church as a gay man in ‘God Loves Uganda,’… all the choices I make of the films and stories that I want to tell, connect to me personally,” he explains.
Since winning his Oscar, Williams has become more active in the Academy including getting elected to the Board of Governors for the Documentary Branch in 2016, which is something he still finds hard to believe. “Now I go to the Oscars, I go to the rehearsals every year and I go and inspect the Governor’s Ball and make sure the napkins are lined up and everything is in place and I’m like, ‘This is my ball! How did this happen?'” But Williams also finds a lot of reward in his role in the organization. He elaborates that, “I get to open the door to other people like me, to filmmakers of color and from under-represented communities who don’t necessarily think that they can get a seat at the table and I get to sort of welcome them to the party.”