Film History

New York City stories: Great documentaries about the Apollo Theater, Statue of Liberty and the Bronx

One positive side of the near-infinite television choices we now face in 2019 — more documentaries than ever! And in the past two weeks, HBO Documentaries and PBS’ Independent Lens have given us films that are firmly rooted in New York City history and culture.

The Apollo

Premieres tonight on HBO

Few building embody American culture more than the Harlem’s Apollo Theater. This film by Roger Ross Williams (Life Animated) celebrates the iconic performances which have graced its stage and the theater’s central role in amplifying African-American voices — from Billie Holiday to Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The Bronx USA

Now streaming on HBO

An exercise in pure nostalgia, this charming bit of fluff by Danny Gold features famous folk from the Bronx (from Colin Powell to Melissa Manchester) waxing on about the borough’s unique magic. The film also follows along with a group of wonderful kids from Dewitt Clinton High School. Just don’t let the movie’s incredibly cheesy music intro detract you from staying through to the end.

Decade of Fire (Independent Lens)

Now streaming on PBS

A must-see documentary from Gretchen Hildebran and Vivian Vazquez, Decade of Fire also celebrates the Bronx, but takes you through its troubled history to reveal the perseverance of the community. Its unwavering focus, excellent historical use of historic footage and personal connection (Vasquez grew up in the Bronx in the 1970s) fills this often-told story with startling insight and heart.

Liberty: Mother of Exiles

World of Wonder filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato — you may know them from RuPaul’s Drag Race! — bring some extra zest to the story of the Statue of Liberty, escorted into its glorious history by none other than Diane von Furstenberg, who raised millions for the construction of a new Liberty Island museum. I appreciated the film’s lively approach to history and its broad scope, visiting souvenir makers in Brooklyn and Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi’s home in Colmar, France.

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