From Liberty: Mother of Exiles (all images courtesy HBO)

New York is full of landmarks that are recognizable to the point where they’re the whole world’s shorthand for the city. Now, a trio of HBO documentaries lay out the backstories of familiar sights we take for granted, as well as school us on the vibrant history of the Bronx. The result is a primer on a city that is in many ways the unofficial capital of the world, yet still an enigma to many. Taken together, they can make natives and visitors alike look at New York with new eyes.

Liberty: Mother of Exiles

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The Statue of Liberty has been a powerful symbol of American ideals — and protest — for over a century. Liberty: Mother of Exiles, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, provides an in-depth history of Auguste Bartholdi, the Frenchman who came up with the idea for the statue and undertook a long campaign to get it built. It also follows the delightfully quippy designer Diane von Furstenburg, the “godmother” of Lady Liberty (she also acted as executive producer on this film), as she sets out on a multi-million-dollar fundraising campaign to build a new museum on Liberty Island. 

The film also contextualizes the statue’s position in our current political climate. There are interviews with activists like Patricia Okoumou, who scaled the statue in 2018 to protest President Trump’s immigration policies, as well as one of the people who covertly hung a banner reading “Refugees Welcome” on the statue’s base. Featuring extensive, intimate views of the statue that you could never get as a tourist, the doc is a thought-provoking look at a treasured American symbol, as well as the New Yorkers who make it possible to accommodate four million visitors each year.

The Bronx, USA

From The Bronx, USA

Director Danny Gold tells this story of The Bronx, USA through the eyes of veteran television producer George Shapiro (Seinfeld). In this comedic “sociocultural history,” the Bronx native pays a visit to the neighborhood where he grew up in the 1940s and makes sense of the fact that the majority-white Bronx of his youth is now mostly populated by black and brown people. The film features interviews with famous Bronx natives, like Colin Powell, Alan Alda, Grandmaster Melle Mel, and Carl and Rob Reiner. Shapiro also interviews graduating seniors at DeWitt Clinton High School, his alma mater, to get a sense of what their experiences have been compared to his own. 

It’s a nostalgic look back which Gold calls “a love letter to New York City.” He wants to celebrate “what connects us across racial backgrounds, cultures, and generations, ultimately emphasizing the hope that exists for the future of America.” This isn’t exactly the Bronx tale you might hear from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Showtime’s Desus and Mero, but it is an earnest multigenerational perspective on New York’s most diverse and distinctive borough.

The Apollo

From The Apollo

Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Ella Fitzgerald are just a few of the great musicians who got their start performing on the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater. This film from Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (Music By Prudence, Life, Animated) fittingly premiered at the Apollo at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. The movie begins in April 2018, featuring a monologue from the stage adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir Between the World and Me, delivered by veteran actor Joe Morton. From there it guides us through the theater’s 85-year history, through its opening, its eventual closing due to bankruptcy, its reopening under new management, and its current status as a nonprofit. Drawing on interviews with theater staff and famous musicians alike, the film’s history of this one location is also a cultural history of America.

Liberty: Mother of Exiles premieres October 17. The Bronx, USA premieres October 30. The Apollo premieres November 6. All three films will be on HBO, and will be available to stream on the service afterward.

Beandrea July (@beandreadotcom) is a freelance writer and cultural critic based in Los Angeles.